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Do we need any more Bible Commentaries?

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Do we want yet another original interpretation?


Firstly, I would like to thank you for your welcome, and for this generous invitation.  The invitation, I believe, came about largely thanks to Dr Sophie Laws, who many of you will have known.  Having sat with Sophie at a Robinson College Dinner, I was quizzing her about her own experience of commentary writing – the Blacks Commentary on the Epistle to James, which according to Amazon was first published in Hardback in 1673!  I owe my own experience of commentary writing to Professor Morna Hooker, who has entrusted me to prepare the Black’s Commentary on Luke’s Gospel – and I suppose the title of this evening’s lecture could be ‘why bother’?




I currently have over forty Bible Commentaries on Luke’s Gospel sitting on my shelf.  And perhaps a better question is, are they all necessary?  As a Baptist Minister, my colleagues tend to be quietly proud of the armies of commentaries lined up on their shelves – and each week there will be a sermon on the Bible in which every commentary on the particular passage in question, comes down off the shelf to do its work.


And of course, there are different types of commentary.  Some of the critical commentaries written a hundred years ago remain perfectly serviceable if you read them intelligently.  Written by heavyweight scholars, with terrifying familiarity with Classical texts, with Classical languages and Classical history, still makes these books an absolute pleasure to read.  And yes they are dry, cluttered with references and notes that can be a distraction and so on, and it may not be the most riveting read for most people.  And yet, nevertheless, as I consult today the great Alfred Plummer’s magnificent Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Saint Luke, written in 1902, it is difficult to find where his work has been superseded.  (Incidentally that commentary is now available online for free, and it’s well worth downloading if you can).  All of this does raise the question, of course, of whether we actually need any more commentaries.  Since I began writing the commentary on Luke about 3 years ago, at least 5 excellent commentaries on Luke have appeared, each of them more than 500 pages long.  What can they give us that is new?  The text we are working on is the same.  The language is the same.  The historical events we are seeking to expound, are not going anywhere!  So, do we really need another commentary?  


In the lectures I have produced this week, you may have noticed that the ordering of the titles may appear slightly wrong.  It is deliberate. We are beginning with the Last word – and asking whether we really want yet another original interpretation.  Tomorrow evening, we will look at the First Word – addressing the question of whether we have access to a stable, original Biblical text in the first place. And on Wednesday evening, we will consider what it is to ‘Begin in the Middle’ – that is, how have we been thrown into the world, how have we been culturally, ideologically, historically situated to experience the text.  






This evening we begin by asking whether it is possible to have the last word.  Now, of course, nobody writing in the 21st century is trying to write the definitive commentary any more, or to write the last word on any interpretation.  In the postmodern world, who’s to say that your interpretation is better than mine and vice versa?  We are all writing from a perspective, and all we can offer is an interpretation of the text from our perspective.  Which is true of course.  But does that mean that we can make the text say whatever we like?  This is a question to which we will return, but this evening I wanted to begin by addressing this question from a different perspective.  


On the handout, you will see a graph showing taking every book of scripture from Genesis to Revelation, with every scriptural reference to every other scriptural reference.  66, 779 cross references. Taken as a library, the Bible is a massively self-referential set of texts.  So there is a sense in which, regardless of whatever text you might be interpreting, the entirety of Scripture is involved.  And so as commentators, it is perhaps best to say that we are joining a conversation that Scripture is having with itself.  


Well, the most obvious genre which lends itself to multiple open-ended interpretations is, of course, the parable.  And so parable interpretation will be the focus of this first lecture.  Since we are talking about hermeneutics, I can’t help thinking back to my interview with John Day in Oxford.  My phd was in Biblical Hermenetics, and having considered my proposal he sat me down and said, “Yes, hermeneutics: the study of reading Scripture without taking the trouble to read Scripture.”  With this critique firmly in mind, as we explore different movements in the interpretation of parables – I would like to focus upon one parable in particular, just to ensure that this theory has some connection to practice.  


So here are some familiar words, in the New Revised Standard translation.


The Parable of the Sower




4 When a great crowd gathered and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable: 5 “A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. 6 Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. 7 Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. 8 Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.” As he said this, he called out, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”




The Purpose of the Parables


9 Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant. 10 He said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets[b] of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak[c] in parables, so that


‘looking they may not perceive,   and listening they may not understand.’




The Parable of the Sower Explained


11 “Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away. 14 As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15 But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.






1.Parables and Allegory


Throughout Christian history, parables have most often been depicted as ‘earthly stories with heavenly meanings’.  Whilst such language is no longer in vogue, this approach to parable interpretation proved dominant for centuries and probably should not be dismissed prematurely.  Stated differently, the parable was long understood as holding up the apparently ordinary created world under our nose in such a way as to offer a glimpse of God’s extraordinary actions in the world.  


The shortcomings of this approach concern the infinite array of possible meanings offered by overzealous interpreters, particularly when parables are read exclusively as allegories.  In modern hermeneutics, ‘allegory’ became almost a term of contempt, denoting unsophisticated, unhistorical and often fantastic interpretations of mythology.  


But allegory is a sophisticated rhetorical tool with a rich heritage, favoured in Mediterranean culture and philosophy since at least the 6th Century BCE.  Combining the Greek notion of ‘other’ (allos) with the ‘familiarity’ of public speech in the market-place or ‘agora’ (allegeuein), allegory reaches into the familiar world of the hearer to offer access to an alternative, different and sometimes mysterious world of mythology.  


If then, allegorical speech was a recognised convention, then surely we have to interpret it allegorically?  To interpret ‘allegorically’ then, is to attribute specific covert meanings to details of a text on the assumption that at least some of the original hearers would have been able pick up on those references.  This was not necessarily an exercise in making the text mean whatever the reader feels it should mean, although that is a practice we will address tomorrow.  There were, after all, historical reference points that help us to grasp the particular meaning we might identify.  Of course, you’re often left wondering whether the author would recognise the allegory allotted to him.  And obviously you cannot apply allegory to everything.  Rudolf Bultmann’s practice of demythologizing the text has often been regarded as allegorical, because he was seen to dismiss historical reference points, and expose the existential core of the parable invented in the 1920s, thereby uncovering a meaning that was never there.  Maybe we can come back to that question.


Allegorical interpretation of Scripture was certainly common practice in Jesus’ day demonstrated most impressively in Philo’s Allegorical Interpretation of Genesis.  Following a Christian tradition that included such towering figures as Ireneaus, Origen and Ambrose, the most influential allegorical interpreter was Augustine of Hippo, who famously furnished the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:29-37) with a seemingly fanciful interpretative gloss  (e.g., the mugging victim represented Adam, the inn represented the Church, the innkeeper the apostle Paul etc).  In fact, Augustine is still sometimes ridiculed in New Testament scholarship even today.


But it’s fair to say that Augustine’s critics have rarely given him a fair hearing or considered the role allegory played within his wider reflections on biblical interpretation.  In fact, most scholars today would concede that every parable contains a least some degree of allegory, and that allegorical interpretation is necessary but not sufficient.  Allegorical interpretation is necessary, because sensitivity to allegorical texts requires allegorical interpretation.  Allegorical interpretation is not sufficient though, as the only way of reading a text because it cannot do justice to the multiple functions that a text like a parable fulfils.  In any case, before the advent of modernity, parables were almost universally regarded as allegories.  And if that is the case, how could anyone claim to have the last word on interpreting them.


Not surprisingly, the parable of the Sower is often not regarded as a parable at all – but as nothing other than an allegory.  The perfectly natural, everyday act of sowing seed becomes an allegory of the word of God being broadcast amongst a crowd of listeners.  And different types of soil refer to different types of listener.  But there is more in this parable than some metaphorical wisdom about how people here.  Allegory was not, the LAST WORD.  It drives towards the challenge, ‘pay attention to how you hear’.




2.Modern Parable Interpretation


Modern parable interpretation takes us far beyond allegory.  It was dominated by three major figures in the Twentieth Century (Adolf Jülicher, C.H. Dodd and Joachim Jeremias) whose contributions to the field form a well-documented narrative.  Jülicher’s insightful and magisterial 1910 survey of Jesus’ parables set the agenda for modern parable interpretation and became the point of departure for scholarly works throughout the 20th Century.  Jülicher introduced a simple but disciplined approach to parable interpretation, believing them to be distinct from allegories (which had multiple meanings) because parables, he claimed, have only one overriding meaning.  


Allegorical reading was thus pronounced invalid as a means of gaining access to that one true meaning of the parable.  That one meaning was best uncovered by identifying the most general moral maxim that could be derived from each particular parable.  For Jülicher the parable was merely a teaching device, each one communicating a particular truth to the receptive listener.  


Building upon Jülicher’s insights, the great Cambridge scholar, C. H. Dodd (The Parables of the Kingdom) maintained that each parable conveyed a single message but all parables reflected a single theme: the coming of God’s eschatological kingdom, the kingdom that would be established at the end of the space-time continuum.  Instead of the parable offering a timeless, general moral insight, Dodd rooted the parables firmly in the context of Jesus’ teaching ministry.  Here the teaching of Jesus was radically distinguished from that of the ‘early church’.  The early church – it was widely claimed – were struggling to cope with the fact that a generation after Jesus had been taken up to heaven, he had still not returned as expected.


Hence, early Christians tampered with Jesus’ original teaching to keep it relevant to their own context later on in the first century.  After all, it was commonplace in Dodd’s day to collapse the concepts of parousia (presence), kingdom (Yahweh’s reign) and eschatology (the end of an age) into one homogenous reference to the return of Jesus in order to bring the space-time universe to a dramatic climax.  Dodd’s brilliance lay in seeking to cut through the textual accretions of the early church to read the parables as revealing the breaking in of God’s Kingdom, i.e., it’s ‘realisation’ within the ministry of Jesus.  


The third great interpreter of parables in the 20th Century was Joachim Jeremias (The Parables of Jesus), who followed a similar strategy to Dodd.  Rather than supposing however, that all parables concerned the Kingdom of God, Jeremias proposed a variety of settings in which different parables made different theological or ethical points.  The task of the interpreter was to burrow through the historical details in order to access the existential core, the call to decision in light of the imminent arrival of the kingdom.  


This was in harmony with Rudolf Bultmann’s approach to textual interpretation which electrified NT scholarship in the early to mid-20th Century. The text was not to be read as a dry and distant record of historical curiosity, so much as it was to be encountered as a source of radical existential challenge to original hearer as well as to the modern reader.  This resulted in conceiving the parables largely as communicating universal moral or religious meanings and could thus be severed from their historical context without loss.  Since historical details were only deemed relevant to the extent that they point towards greater, timeless truth, Jesus’ message became largely de-historicised, his teaching de-politicized and his identity thereby de-Judaized.  


If we were to apply all of this to the parable of the Sower, most academic commentaries certainly benefit from Modern historical research.  The most obvious insight, is when Jesus has told the parable, then the disciples asked him what it meant – because it seemed to be incomprehensible to everyone.  What follows is often called an ‘explanation’ where Jesus discusses various references within the parable.


Most modern commentators, taking the parable’s explanation as addressing (with suspicious foreknowledge) the missionary struggles faced by early Christian communities.  It has led the majority of scholars in the Jülicher tradition to conclude that this entire section (in each of the synoptics) originates not on the lips of Jesus but in early Christian teaching.  There are excellent grounds for this interpretation, but they are not exactly conclusive.  


The challenge of the parable from a Bultmann perspective, would then be take the parable as some form of existential challenge -


This particular brand of historical criticism, however, was not the only model of parable interpretation.  Throughout the Twentieth Century scholars of literary studies, political science, theological hermeneutics, philosophical discourse and historical criticism have all contributed to our appreciation of both the composition of parables and the dynamics of hearing them.  We will outline the contributions of each in turn.



Literary Critical Reading



By the 1970s new movements in literary criticism were brought to bear upon parable interpretation, in particular the practice of Deconstruction.  Based on the work of Jacques Derrida (and imported into NT scholarship through such figures as J.D.Crossan, Jean-Luc Marion and Stephen D. Moore), deconstructive approaches saw the text resisting all attempts to reduce it to any kind of ‘meaning’ at all.  Instead, the parable was regarded as a means of ‘destabilising’ previously treasured meanings, exposing the hearer / reader to perpetual interpretive insecurity.  With no meaning of its own, the parable became a rhetorical mechanism designed to undermine the assumptions and beliefs of the reader / hearer.  It was thus regarded as an entirely negative ‘language event’, with no positive effect in the real world or the real life of the reader.  Now, we will explore deconstruction in more detail tomorrow evening, but…


If we consider the Parable of the sower in this light, then it appears that Jesus himself endorses this view, when he declares that although his disciples have a grip on the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, to everyone else everything is given in parables – why?  So that ‘looking they may not perceive… hearing they may not understand’.  


So, from the deconstructionist perspective, parables it seems are simply told in order to confuse, to disorientate, to confound those who have not learned to listen.  There can be no such thing as THE LAST WORD on its interpretation – because for deconstructionsists, everything remains in a state of flux.


(There is no explanation that follows: if you have one of those translations like the NIV that translates verse 11 as ‘this is the meaning of the parable’, then it’s important to note that the word ‘meaning’ simply isn’t there in the Greek, which just reads: ‘this is the parable…’)



However, literary studies in the 20th Century also saw the development of narrative theory (via such renowned critics as Roland Barthes, Roman Jacobson and Vladimir Propp), which sought to take seriously not only the deconstructive effects of a story, but the reconstructive consequences of the new narrative worlds they create.  In light of narrative theory, the parable becomes a powerful mini-narrative with the capacity to undermine the dominant narrative of one’s ‘natural’ place in the world.  Rather than simply deconstructing one’s treasured worldview, the narrative would displace it by revealing a hitherto inconceivable alternative. The hearer/reader then comes to inhabit a radically different way of understanding God, the self and the world.  


Again, if we return to the parable, the narrative notion takes us beyond deconstruction.  The deconstruction is there, to be sure, as we read about disasters that are implicitly destined to engulf all Israel, and the cares to which all humanity is subjected.  The various aspects of outside pressure that prevent the seed from actually bearing fruit in a person’s life – this is where deconstruction leaves you. But the reconstructive work of the seed is plain to see.  The word of God is not some meaningless, pointless attempt to keep you forever uncertain about the meaning of the word.  According to Luke’s Jesus, you can literally grip the word, take hold of it, grasp it and allow it do its work upon you.  Here, to interpret a text is to obey it, to live it out, to cultivate an attentive disposition – so again, since you interpret a text using the story of who you are, any notion of anyone having the last word sounds like a nonsense.


As crucial as the insights of literary critics were, understanding the dynamics of the parable in this way did not necessarily reveal their purpose on the lips of Jesus of Nazareth, nor did it demand a substantive appreciation of the sheer difficulty and danger of displacing one worldview with another.



Political Reading


In parallel with developments in literary theory there emerged a renewed emphasis, in some quarters, upon political readings of Scripture.  In particular, the birth of Liberation Theology in the 1960s introduced a pattern of interpretation that applied insights derived from Marxist notions of history.  Jesus and his disciples were thus regarded as part of a peasant underclass struggling to exist beneath the oppressive might of imperial Rome, an approach that shed new light especially on Jesus’ teaching on poverty, forgiveness and Jubilee. Elements of these insights have impacted on contemporary parable interpretation, particularly through such figures as Kenneth Bailey, William Herzog II and Ched Myers.  


These figures are well aware of the monstrous tenacity of the ideologies that take root in the human psyche, ideologies peddled by regimes that were able not only to conquer territories, but to conquer the ‘hearts and minds’ of their subjects.  Ideology here refers to that latter process, which determines the way that a person is (often unwittingly) shaped to make sense of the world and their place within it.  It shapes not only the major conscious decisions of life but also imperceptibly shapes the myriad subconscious decisions and habits of one’s daily routine.  We may explore ideology more fully on Wednesday – but those most hopelessly trapped within their ideology, are those who don’t believe they have one!  And now that we live in an avowedly post-ideological age, there are plenty of those folk.


To displace one ideology with another is thus a profoundly difficult and potentially dangerous task (as Jesus discovered in Nazareth, 4:14-31), but it remains a crucial element of the parables of Jesus.  In this sense, the parable may be viewed as an ideological explosive device.  As a compact, hard-hitting micro-narrative, the parable is designed to shake listeners to their core, displacing one worldview with another.  Such an event has long been recognised as a disturbing, violent and potentially traumatic encounter.  It may be for this reason many choose to see but not to see, and hear but not hear.  That is, to see (the story at a surface level) but not see (its radical and subversive implications); to hear (the elements of the story that confirm their ideology) but not hear (any elements that threaten that treasured ideology).


Again, this is displayed perfectly in the parable of the sower.  How does it do this? An ideological reading of the text, might point out that Israel is fundamentally the nation that is supposed to be able to hear… think of the Shema… and yet, it turns out that many people who think they can hear perfectly well, cannot hear, and many people who believe they can see perfectly well, cannot see.  And as it turns out, the receptive soil constitutes only a fraction of the populace.  Ideology here, is a means of understanding all those things which insidiously filter out the Word of God – in such a way as to leave those who cannot hear still believing they are good listeners.  Since this is a parable about hearing, and since there is no escape from the ideological environment we inhabit, there can be no putting up our feet and declaring ourselves to have fully understood.



Theological Reading


In light of this, from a theological perspective hearing a parable might well constitute an act of self-sacrifice.  In the early 20th Century Karl Barth emphasised the cost of hearing scripture as he critiqued traditional historical criticism for interpreting the text from outside, i.e., at an objective, clinical and safe distance where the reader was invulnerable to any personal encounter.  For Barth, to hear scripture was to enter into a ‘strange new world’, an act of abandonment that could not leave the life of the reader intact.  To hear the text is to encounter Israel’s God in the depths of one’s being, an experience that might at once be terrible and destructive, restorative and liberating.  This model of Biblical interpretation is particularly helpful in unpacking the theological dynamic of the parable, an approach that Barth found curiously and lamentably lacking in the Biblical criticism of his own day.  


After all, the historical parables of Jesus were indeed a highly developed form of discourse specifically designed to draw the reader / hearer into the presence of God in precisely the way Barth had described.  The theological gravity of these micro-narratives must thus be factored into any historical account of speaking or hearing parables.


Now the ideological shift destined to occur in heart of those who hear a parable well, has nothing to do with a person simply waking up one day and deciding to see the world differently.  Increasingly today such concepts as Cognitive bias, and Tribal Epistemology, confirmation bias are used to explain how we subconsciously manage to filter out that which unnerves, or threatens us.  These are not evil, or a moral failing necessarily, so much as an evolutionary survival instinct.  As Philosophers from Socrates, to Montaigne, to Heidegger have repeatedly emphasized, real thought, real listening, requires the willingness to die.  In theological terms, to be broken and remade, what Martin Luther called a little baptism.  There is an act of self sacrifice involved in listening – and that is precisely what is studiously avoided by those who have failed to bear fruit – those who are weighed down by genuine, natural, morally defensible concerns.  For a theological reading of the parable, however, the only principle concern – and the only means to a fruitful life is to abandon one’s morally valid concerns for the sake of steadfast fidelity to the Word of God.From this perspective, understanding the text correctly appears secondary to the fruit it bears in your life.


Philosophical Reading


Barth’s theological approach is mirrored by that of the philosopher, Georgio Agamben, for whom parables are not merely teaching about the Kingdom of God, but rather are a means by which the Kingdom of God enters the world.  Emphasising the sheer imminence of God’s Kingdom, the parable (when properly heard) is the fusion of the Word of God with the world of the hearer, the synthesis of the ultimate with the immediate, the germination of the seed within the soil.  For Agamben, the parable is a microcosm of the genuine speech that so often eludes human experience.  Jesus spoke almost exclusively in parables (Mt 13:34; Mk 4:34) because it was a form of speech that revealed the sheer closeness of the Kingdom.  Over time, says Agamben, this insight even found its way into French and Italian languages whose terms for speech (parler and parlare) are rooted in the word parable.  Barth might well have been wary of the ‘natural’ (in contrast to the special ‘revelatory’) theological tone implicit in Agamben’s argument. He would nevertheless have welcomed the philosopher’s emphasis upon the glorious if unbearable proximity of the Kingdom.  However for the historian there remains an implicit timelessness in Agamben’s thought, a general principle about language that pays little heed to the historical specificity of the Gospels’ claim that Jesus of Nazareth initiated a new state of affairs for Israel and the world.


If this, as Professor Hooker rightly points out, a parable about parables – then Agamben’s thought is in line with the Evangelists.  The parable is precisely the seed that grows to tangible fruition in the life of those who hear the Word.  This is not the modernist pattern which separates hearing from doing.  As though you understand a text, then go away an put it into practice.  This process is what some have described as Kantian moral applicationism.


Far from it, there is a sense in which we understand the word only by doing.  Having heard the word well, does not mean that you then strain yourself to do what it says.  If you have heard well, then involuntarily it will manifest itself in the way that you live.  


Historical Reading


The final element feeding into contemporary parable research concerns studies of the Historical Jesus.  Scholars, particularly since the 1980s (e.g., J.D. Crossan, James D.G. Dunn, Robert Funk, E.P. Sanders and N.T. Wright) have been at pains to emphasize the Jewish, Hellenistic and Imperial context in which Jesus of Nazareth was hailed Israel’s Messiah.  Exploring the ways in which Jesus inherited strands of Jewish belief, scriptural interpretation and apocalyptic hope has shed its own light upon the interpretation of parables.  Often they are seen as miniature narratives that retell the entire history (and future) of Israel in light of the breaking in of God’s Kingdom in the person of Jesus.  As such they attempt to take seriously the social and political plight of Jesus’ audience, the thoroughly Jewish nature of their ideology, the rhetorical impact of their claims upon the life of the hearer, and their theological claims about the very identity of the God of Israel.  


Looking at the historical context of this parable, for instance, we might emphasize that a historical judgement is soon to visit itself upon Israel.  This, of course, had already happened by the time Theophilus was reading Luke’s text.  And having undergone such a horrific rupture to as the loss of the Temple and the destruction of Jerusalem – who was it that remained faithful to Israel’s God, and to whom does Israel’s God remain faithful.  Despite the perfectly natural cares of this world, despite that time of testing that causes many to fall away, despite the onslaught of the devil in whatever form that takes – Israel remains who Israel has always been, how? By hearing with an honest and beautiful heart.





All of this reveals, of course, that attempting to isolate a single meaning for each parable is a dubious and futile exercise.  To reduce the complex, multi-dimensional dynamics of such speech to a single, identifiable, comprehensible, meaning is to deny the necessity, the genius, the mechanics and ultimately the value of the parable altogether.  When properly heard, the parable is best understood as a language event (since it is delivered by word) that becomes a personal event (because it transforms the spirit of the hearer), with social and political consequences (as it affects their future dealings with others in the public world) that speak powerfully of God’s faithful presence (in the life of Israel and the life of the hearer).


And what does this say about commentary?  Clearly, any interpretation of a text will bring to it assumptions – probably subconsciously, but assumptions about what a text is (literary criticism), a set of political commitments (ideology), a philosophical worldview, a theological bias, and a conception of the historical context.  So any commentary doing its work well, will need to have each of these dimensions of textual interpretation in play at once.  But our textual, political, philosophical, theological and historical biases are multiple, fluid, open to change.


‘The understanding of a text is never a definitive one, but rather remains open because the meaning of the Scripture discloses itself anew in every future.’  (Rudolf Bultmanm, 1884-1976)


The role of the commentator, is clearly not to have the last word – but to situate the reader as near as possible to the author – so that they can see what the author has witnessed and what the author is reporting.  Now, of course, this assumes that there is such a thing as an author, who wrote some kind of original text, and that will be the question we will address tomorrow evening, when we look at the First Word.









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