My translation of a recent Southwestern Baptist Press release

Those of you who follow Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, led by the man pictured below (Adam Greenway) may have become aware of certain controversial occurrences on the Fort Worth campus.

Events there are complex, but I have been fortunate enough to study many languages, so my translation skills may help you make sense of things. While I do not speak Passive-Aggressive as a native tongue, I became fluent in it while working under President Greenway’s leadership. So below, I provide the full text of a recent press release (here) in italics. In between paragraphs, in bold, I provide the translation into standard English with some editorial notes as well.

Southwestern Seminary issues statement on Dead Sea Scrolls fragments, archaeology program

TRANSLATION: Southwestern Seminary dodges growing concerns over its treatment of faculty, staff, and students, and deflects legitimate anxiety about the school’s curricular direction onto things nobody really cares about.

TRANSLATION: Passive-Aggressive is an extraordinarily nuanced language. People who speak Passive-Aggressive tend to have come along in a litigious and nasty culture, where they establish social status by shunning and humiliating rivals over personal matters but must avoid getting sued. Notice the artful way that this writer places the reference to Dead Sea scrolls first and then follows with a mention of the archaeology program, as if everyone is terribly concerned about a collection of artifacts locked in a vault and as if the elimination of the archaeology program is an afterthought. Naturally, the truest concerns among people who follow Southwestern news are about the large number of fired staff and faculty whom people have been hearing about, as well as current students who have paid tuition and are now seeing their program cut before they can finish their programs. As fluent Passive-Aggressive speakers, these spokespeople for Southwestern must throw out some signal to say they have addressed these concerns, while containing the focus to one small part of the serious anxiety and then camouflaging even that tiny acknowledgement of concern with a long digression about Dead Sea scrolls.

By Staff on Apr 6, 2020

TRANSLATION: Written by someone who can’t be named because nobody wants to be held accountable for the content of this press release.

The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary provided the following statement on April 1 to Christianity Today in response to questions concerning the status of the seminary’s Dead Sea Scrolls fragments and the seminary’s archaeology program. 

TRANSLATION: Southwestern turned to the anti-Trump, loyal propagandists at Christianity Today in order to feed them copy for a fluff story. They did this because a lot of people are incredibly angry about Greenway’s destruction of the faculty and the fact that he’s been hiring lots of white men from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Greenway worked before coming to Southwestern, even as he keeps claiming he has to let go more and more faculty because there’s no money for personnel. The fact that the racial diversity among the faculty seems to be dwindling to almost nothing while the school exists in Texas, a state with a long Latino and African American history and sizable minority populations, makes the need for a glossy distraction even more important. So the Dead Sea scrolls it is.

“The Dead Sea Scrolls fragments were acquisitions of the prior administration. Because we have had very little confidence in their authenticity, the fragments have never been on public display since the arrival of the new seminary administration in February 2019. The fragments are in a secure location and have not been available to the general public in some years. The current administration’s lack of confidence in the fragments’ authenticity has been confirmed by an October 2018 report prepared for the seminary’s Board of Trustees by faculty associated with studying the collection. That report, which was recently provided to the current administration, found that by as early as 2016, some seminary faculty had become convinced at least some of the fragments were possible forgeries.

TRANSLATION: No press release would be complete without an over-the-top attack on Paige Patterson. Adam Greenway got his current job because he replaced Patterson. This places a painful burden on him. Whereas other executives find comfort in knowing they earned their position through talent and dedication, Greenway must forever live with the burden of being the guy who moved into the office of a famous figure victimized by a smear campaign. His ability to become president of SWBTS is owed entirely to the mobbing of Patterson led by people such as Karen Swallow Prior, feminist anti-Trump activist who wrote the petition against Patterson while she was still at the ERLC and reporting to Patterson rival and Mohler protégé Russell Moore (see Greenway allies at Christianity Today who covered the story); Beth Moore, pop writer who blends homespun grandmotherly apologetics with Fox News TV host aesthetics; and Jonathan Merritt, who has leveraged his privileged fame as son of a former SBC president to gain a media platform, which he uses to defend drag queen story hour and attack Billy Graham’s son for building COVID response facilities in Manhattan without first renouncing his charity’s commitment to Biblical sexual values. Greenway’s staff sounds nostalgic for 2018, when sundry ineptitudes in the SBC could be shrugged off by changing the topic to what a mean and awful person Paige Patterson was. In the middle of an epidemic, during which lots of people would like him to explain why everything under his leadership has gotten worse, rather than address his administration’s failures, the topic shifts to Paige Patterson’s Dead Sea scrolls. “Look, a squirrel!” It’s why upon arrival at Southwestern instead of shoring up finances or making sure the curriculum was top-notch, Greenway had his staff change the name of the president’s house, remove stain glass windows from a chapel, change the decals on street signs, change the email signature graphics, change the logo for Scarborough College from three yellow stripes to a burnt orange torch, and switch the hats that faculty wear for commencement exercises.

MORE TRANSLATION: When you see two sentences back to back that confuse you, this is not accidental, but rather a Passive-Aggressive grammatical construction equivalent to saying, “please don’t make me answer your real questions.” Hence one sentence says that the scrolls have not been on display since the new administration was sworn in in February 2019, and the next sentence says the Scrolls have not been available to the public for “some years.You may ask, what does this mean? How many years? Did Patterson not place them on display? Did the interim president not place them on display? Why not just say the scrolls haven’t been on display for x number of years and tell us how many years it has been? This is all Passive-Aggressive nuance, a ritual form of politely refusing to address urgent problems while insisting on filibustering about low-urgency non-problems. Nobody cares about the Dead Sea Scrolls in the middle of layoffs and a COVID epidemic, as is evident from the total lack of urgency or specificity regarding the mysterious “report” that this press release reveals dates back to October 2018. Notice the wonderfully vague words such as “faculty associated with studying the collection” and “recently provided.” Who asked for this report, who picked the faculty to look at the fragments, where is the report, what does it say, how did someone give it to the Greenway administration, and who did for what reason? Speakers of Passive-Aggressive like to choose general and noncommittal words that allow everyone to avoid lawsuits. Thanks to this press release’s failure to tell us what the report says, why it was commissioned, who looked at the fragments, who wrote the report, and why it was written in the interim period between Patterson’s presidency and Greenway’s presidency but only “recently” provided, any number of inaccurate conclusions that might be drawn from such a paragraph can be blamed on the reader’s failure to decipher the meaning since a range of happenstances might be true enough inside the boundaries of the words chosen here. Maybe 40 professors with extensive expertise in dating ancient artifacts came forward because they were deeply concerned that the whole collection was fake. Maybe an English professor and someone in counseling saw a stamp saying “MADE IN CHINA” on the corner of one fragment and had a good laugh about it with one of the trustees. Brilliant writers in Passive-Aggressive have the magical ability to leave open grand possibilities with their wiggle room. Notice that we still can’t be sure enough to conclude that any of the scrolls are fake; we just know that Greenway’s people thought they were fake and an unknown number of nameless professors agreed that “at least some” were “possible” forgeries.

More recently, the independent investigation of the Museum of the Bible’s Dead Sea Scrolls collection concluded its fragments were not authentic, which gives us even less confidence in our collection since they share a similar provenance to the MOTB collection. We would welcome an independent investigation of the seminary’s fragments, although the institution is unable to fund such an effort. And, given that significant institutional resources were expended on the acquisition and promotion of the likely fraudulent fragments, it is not prudent for the seminary to spend further precious funds on them. We are contemplating legal remedies to seek restitution of payments made by the seminary, as authorized by the prior administration.

TRANSLATION: Whoever wrote this press release is obviously aware that the preceding paragraph bashing Patterson and delivering innuendos about “some” nameless faculty hinting that “at least some” fragments might be “possible” forgeries will not convince anyone with an ounce of skepticism. This prose does a wonderful job of disguising self-interest and bias. So in the present paragraph the unknown writer brings up an outside party with a respectable-sounding name: “The Museum of the Bible.” The hyperlink provided by Southwestern leads to an article published March 13, 2020, in National Geographic, as if this article will provide the smoking-gun evidence to justify the seminary’s strange press release. Someone at National Geographic did publish an article about a team of sixteen researchers who collectively concluded that the fragments held by the Museum were not authentic. The article also included statements that cautioned people not to make an extreme judgment either way. This is the statement from “leading Biblical scholar” Emanuel Tov: “I will not say that there are no unauthentic fragments among the MOB fragments, but in my view, their inauthenticity as a whole has still not been proven beyond doubt. This doubt is due to the fact that similar testing has not been done on undisputed Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts in order to provide a base line for comparison, including the fragments from the Judean Desert sites that are later than Qumran. The report expects us to conclude that abnormalities abound without demonstrating what is normal.

MORE TRANSLATION: So the article gives the reader enough doubt to refute the certainty of the article itself: some of the fragments may be fakes, but the commission calling all of them fake might be just as fake too. A prudent person would hesitate before issuing a scathing press release based on this. Or if you were going to make a press release about it, given that National Geographic just ran an extended article about the topic including the names of researchers involved and important details, at least a Southwestern statement could tell us who looked at their documents and what the similar “provenance” was. What are we to make of the researchers commissioned to look at the documents? This project of investigation took years and had no relation to the COVID epidemic or the present layoffs by Adam Greenway’s administration. Greenway’s staffer mentions that the seminary doesn’t have money to spend on an independent investigation, so we are to accept circumstantial evidence that the Southwestern-owned fragments (obtained, as the press release reminds us, by the wicked and mean Paige Patterson) are also possibly partially or entirely to some degree some kind of forgery, based on the fact that another set of scrolls held at the Museum of the Bible was deemed likely but not certainly fake in part if not in whole. Underneath all the hedge words we have only more questions, which the press release tells us the seminary is refusing to allow us to answer because they don’t have money due to COVID; which is hard to see as relevant considering that a report was available in October 2018 calling into question the documents’ authenticity.

MORE TRANSLATION: We have reason to feel suspicious where there is an apparent hedge, since we can identify high stakes and powerful motives among the parties involved, to tilt the public stance on the fragments one way or the other. The Museum of the Bible recently had a change in leadership and began receiving funding from Paul Singer, the pro-LGBT businessman who has spent millions of dollars trying to force conservative and religious organizations to change their position on gay issues. Singer has a gay son and feels it is his duty to get conservatives to accept homosexuality over the objections of ancient Christian and Jewish scripture. As reported in this press release by the Liberty Counsel, Singer has a long track record of pushing money into conservative and religious groups ranging from the GOP to study abroad programs in — you guessed it — Israel; and then using his financial influence to alienate non-LGBT-affirming conservatives within those organizations, even going as far as placing their names on “enemies lists” such as the ones that arose in 2016 when Singer was against Trump.

“As part of campus-wide budgetary reductions necessitated by the financial challenges associated with COVID-19, we are working with accrediting agencies to discontinue the archaeology program. This outcome was unavoidable. As part of our institutional reset, we will no longer offer degrees in archaeology because they are incongruent with our mission to maximize resources in the training of pastors and other ministers of the Gospel for the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. Archaeology is a worthy vocation for evangelical ministers and will continue to be valued as part of the seminary’s biblical backgrounds courses, and we will make every effort to offer future opportunities for students to engage in archaeology within our core academic programs, especially the Master of Divinity degree. We are communicating with current archaeology students underscoring our commitment to them, and we are working with accrediting agencies to present to them options for degree completion.”

TRANSLATION: So here’s the punch line. The seminary laid off a bunch of professors (reports, still unconfirmed, have estimated the number at 12, including some senior archaeologists.) Some others have left of their own accord, however we interpret it. A large number of staff was laid off. Using the typical intimidation tactics employed by the SBC and by Greenway’s underlings in particular, the seminary seems to be deliberate about trying to keep all this turmoil from public scrutiny. One archaeology student from Southwestern tweeted: “Now the administration is giving ‘warnings’ to students who work at the school and commented on my FB post, even though their comments were much milder than mine. #bullies #FreedomOfSpeech.” The reference to accrediting agencies shows that Southwestern knows they face possible troubles with accreditors, since John MacArthur’s Master’s University in California was suspended for arguably less instability than we see happening at Southwestern. Greenway came into power at Southwestern promising a bread basket full of improvements that would place the school far above where they were at with Patterson. Now, instead, racial diversity among the faculty is plummeting; almost forty faculty are gone; a bevy of new white male professors have been hired from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary even with the supposed budget crisis forcing Greenway to hemorrhage the academic talent that had brought many of the students there for study; the programs in preaching and archaeology are gone; student dissatisfaction runs high; and other than the usual cheerleading line of Company Men shaking their poms poms for Adam Greenway on cue, word on the street is that he’s destroying the seminary. The Baptists of Texas are starting to smell a rat.

More news to come: stay tuned!