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Do Textual Variants Actually *Matter* For Much??

In light of my previous post, I thought I should address a question I get asked a lot. Or rather, a rhetorical question that I hear posed a lot — especially by evangelical apologists who want to insist that even though there are hundreds of thousands of differences in our manuscripts, none of them really matters for anything that’s important. (This was a perennial objection to my book Misquoting Jesus.)  Is that true?   I dealt with it many years ago on the blog, and it’s time to address it again.



I got the impression (I can’t remember where or if you said this… or if Bruce Metzger said it) that no significant Christian doctrine is threatened by text critical issues… and so, if that is the case, who cares if, in Mark 4: 18, Jesus spoke of the “illusion” of wealth or the “love” of wealth. I mean, who cares other than textual critics and Bible translators?



The first thing to emphasize is a point that I repeatedly make and that many people seem never to notice that I make (especially my fundamentalist friends who very much object to my views about textual criticism):  of the many hundreds of thousands of textual variants that we have among our manuscripts, most of them are completely unimportant and insignificant and don’t matter for twit.   Why should any of us care that much if a scribe spells a word one way or another way, if it’s the same word?   Many of *them* didn’t seem to care!  But each different spelling counts as a textual variant!

There are many (many!) textual variants that are (virtually) impossible to replicate in English.   That is to say, if a verse is worded in two different ways, they mean exactly the same thing, even though in Greek they appear different.  So variants like *that* don’t matter much.   And that’s most variants.

But there are other variants that matter a *lot* — variants that…..

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Setting Dates for the Gospels
Introduction to the Manuscripts of the New Testament



  1. Avatar
    Gary  November 21, 2019

    Dear Dr. Erhman:

    I applaud your decision to bring Christian scholars and apologists, such as Dr. Licona, onto your blog for discussion with your readers. The more Christians and skeptics engage, the closer we will all get to the truth. However, I have one suggestion: Please require your Christian guests to post ALL comments, not just the ones they are comfortable with. Your Christian guests certainly should *not* be required to respond to all comments, but they should be required to post all comments. Conservative Christians are notorious for censoring skeptic comments on their own blogs—skeptic comments that they do not like. Censoring abusive comments is certainly appropriate. But Christian guests on a skeptic blog such as yours should not be allowed to engage in censorship, in my humble opinion—but it is your blog. Thank you.

    • Avatar
      Gary  November 21, 2019

      I would very much appreciate if Dr. Licona would allow my following comment to be posted under his post of November 17, 2019, here on Dr. Ehrman’s blog. I don’t expect him to answer it, but I do expect him to allow civil discussion without censorship, as is the custom here:

      Imagine if I were to claim that at age ten I came to believe that Elvis Presley had been raised from the dead. Imagine that from the age of ten, until this very day, I believe that Elvis Presley communicates with me on a daily basis. Would you, Dr. Licona, trust my objectivity in evaluating the evidence for the claim that Elvis Presley had been raised from the dead? I don’t think you would. Do you see why many of us are skeptical of your ability to objectively evaluate the evidence for the alleged resurrection of Jesus and the alleged divine inspiration of the Bible when you claim you first believed in the reality of the resurrected Jesus at the age of 10, and as do all evangelicals, you believe that the spirit of this man lives inside your body and communicates with you?

      If you do not believe that the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth communicates with you, then I apologize for making an ad hominem statement. But if you *do* believe that the spirit of this first century dead man communicates with you, then my statement was not an ad hominem, and I think you should answer the question.

      • Bart
        Bart  November 22, 2019

        No one is censuring you. He hasn’t been able to get back on to the blog comments becuase he is at a conference.

  2. Avatar
    fishician  November 21, 2019

    Clarify, please: a textual variant is a passage that contains some differences from the passage as recorded in other manuscripts? For example, if one manuscript of Luke has certain words being said at Jesus’ baptism, and another manuscript has different words, that is a textual variant. If Mark has the disciples returning to Galilee after the crucifixion but Luke has them staying in Jerusalem, that is not a textual variant, that is just a different form of the story altogether, correct? I think most people who have not studied the matter much assume textual variants are just slips of the pen, a misspelling, a word accidentally omitted, and so forth, so it seems like a trivial matter. However, I think you do a good job in your books showing why the changing of certain words and phrases, particularly in the context of evolving doctrines in the early church, make some of these changes quite significant, and very helpful to see how early Christian ideas may have changed over time.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2019

      A textual variant is any difference between two texts — it could be a letter, a word, or a phrase, whatever grammatically unified unit that differs from one to another manuscript. E.g., boy vs boys would be one variant; but if it were “one boy” vs “two boys” then that would normally be considered one variant even though it involves two words, since hte two words go together.

  3. Lev
    Lev  November 21, 2019

    “If it turns out that Mark does have a doctrine of the atonement, and that Luke has a *different* understanding of Jesus’ death, then you have to figure out which one is right – especially if they cannot be reconciled.”

    One of the lessons I ‘unlearned’ from my Catholic upbringing and subsequent brief spell in an Evangelical church was that the significant differences in doctrines/truths/teachings of Christianity in the NT are too much to reconcile – that despite heavily defended claims over orthodoxy by these churches, there is no one unifying teaching that binds all these differences together.

    Whilst each NT author shared a common bond/communion/belief that Jesus was Lord, beyond that they have quite a lot of differences with each other in emphasis, approach, and perspective in their faith.

    Eventually, I gave up trying to figure out who is “right” and who is “wrong”. I came to accept the variability and differences in the NT and used the tensions between the teachings as a more interesting lense to see my faith than the lense offered by the Catholic and Evangelical church.

    I find the fight over “truth” in the first four centuries of Christianity to be fascinating. The Ebionites, Gnostics, Marcionites, Bardesanites – and the proto-orthodox group in Rome itself – all struggled and wrestled with each other over their own interpretation over truth until the Roman Church reigned supreme.

    Seeing how the arguments, claims and counterclaims play out is revealing in itself. Much in the same way that we can uncover a fresh understanding of the competing versions of Christianity from Paul’s letters when he rebuffs and attacks his own critics in his letters. Who were these Angel venerating competitors of his? Messianic Essenes perhaps? Maybe the “men of James” were Enochic Jews who had joined the Jerusalem Church?

    Discovering why each group believed in their own teachings is really interesting, and maybe – just maybe – their reasons are worth considering in a more sympathetic light. After all, perhaps what much of the church considers to be the truth and orthodoxy, might end up being false and heresy.

  4. Avatar
    brenmcg  November 21, 2019

    Only part of 1 John 5:7-8 wasn’t originally in the new testament but what’s left after removing the comma is still trinitarian.

    “For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three into one are.”

    There are three testifiers; these three are one; and this testimony is then described as God’s testimony.

    God is three testifiers in one; one of whom is the Spirit.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2019

      It can be taken to refer to the trinity, but the Trinity in traditional doctrine is not the Spirit, the Water, and the Blood, but the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  November 22, 2019

        But blood and water are just symbols for the Son and Father, who we know from the gospel are also testifiers.

        This testimony is about eternal life which is in the Son. The Blood and Water symbolize the baptisms of the Son and Father which give eternal life. 1 John 1:7. 1 Peter 3:20-21

        Can’t we say that the Johannine Comma began as a marginal note making explicit what was always implicit in the original text?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 24, 2019

          It was probably a marginal note. But no, I do not see any evidence that the author had any concept of the “Trinity” as it developed in later thought.

  5. Avatar
    tteichma  November 21, 2019

    Regarding the Trinity, I find it interesting that the NIV and the NRSV don’t even support it:

    NIV: For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.

    With a translators note: Late manuscripts of the Vulgate: “testify in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth: the” (not found in any Greek manuscript before the fourteenth century)

    The 14th century!

    NRSV: There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree.

    With a translators note: A few other authorities read (with variations): “There are three that testify in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth:”

    I like to point out to my Christian friends that the Trinity wasn’t settled on until the 4th century and wasn’t more fully accepted until the 6th. Not that it’s wrong, but we should be clear that it isn’t really there in the bible.

  6. Avatar
    Stephen  November 21, 2019

    Since you’re discussing textual variants I guess this would be a good time to ask about the current status of the brave new world of CBGM. Any stunning revelations yet? I’m definitely a non-specialist but I do design and test software and I am somewhat familiar with statistical analysis so through my reading I have kinda sorta absorbed enough to have questions. So if you ever hit a lull in the subjects on the blog then I would appreciate such a textual scholar as yourself having a go at discussing it. I realize there are probably about 8 or 10 of us whose eyes won’t glaze over but we are out here.


    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2019

      More like 99 out of 100! I ain’t goin’ there! Even most scholars don’t understand it.

      • Robert
        Robert  November 22, 2019

        Bart: “More like 99 out of 100! I ain’t goin’ there! Even most scholars don’t understand it [CBGM].”

        Would you thus count yourself among the 99 lost?

        If so, don’t worry, if Jesus left the 99 to go after the one lost sheep, how much more (קל וחומר) would he seek out the 99 lost scholars!

        Come on. You should help us out. I once thought I understood the basics of CBGM (as explained by Joel Delobel), but since everyone talks about how difficult it is, I’m not so sure any more.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 24, 2019

          Yup. I’m surprised that Delobel would have a full grasp of it — he was an superb textual critic, but not a statistics/data analysis kind of scholar.

          • Robert
            Robert  November 25, 2019

            Bart: “Yup. I’m surprised that Delobel would have a full grasp of it [CBGM ]— he was an superb textual critic, but not a statistics/data analysis kind of scholar.”

            You’re right, Professor Delobel never spoke of any complicated statistical methodology in CBGM. In fact, I think at that time he was merely explaining the beginnings of this approach as it was envisioned and being developed and as this was filtered through how Barbara Aland was explaining it to him.

            That’s my current dilemma. The basics of the approach seems pretty easy to grasp, but I’m not sure if I’m really grasping what people today are referring to when they try to demystify (or debunk) the secret sauce of CBGM.

            How much statistical analysis is needed beyond a percentage comparison of how much each manuscript agrees with the modern critical text and a percentage comparison of how much each manuscript agrees with each other manuscript?

          • Bart
            Bart  November 25, 2019

            So if you’re really interested, you need to read teh books by Tommy Wasserman andn Peter Gurry. But it can be tough sledding, even though they try to make it understandable.

          • Robert
            Robert  November 27, 2019

            Bart: “So if you’re really interested, you need to read teh books by Tommy Wasserman andn Peter Gurry. But it can be tough sledding, even though they try to make it understandable.”

            I’ve come close to reading their books before. This may sound really stupid. I know they aren’t really ‘evangelicals’ in the worst sense of the word, but I’m still put off by the fact that they identify themselves as ‘evangelicals’ on their ETC blog. I know, it’s really stupid. Just a bit of a turn-off. It would be so much better if the great Bart Ehrman, a premier member of the lost 99 traditional text critics, would master the new method, break it down, and make it understandable to the rest of us poor slobs.

            Happy Thanksgiving!

          • Bart
            Bart  November 29, 2019

            Yeah, I get it. Stephen Carlson, on the blog, is a real expert and starting to attack the method, but only in articles soon to be published.

          • Robert
            Robert  November 27, 2019

            Bart: “So if you’re really interested, you need to read teh books by Tommy Wasserman andn Peter Gurry. But it can be tough sledding, even though they try to make it understandable.”

            From a more politically correct perspective, if you could only recommend/read one of these two books, which one would you recommend, and why?

          • Bart
            Bart  November 29, 2019

            Of these two authors? There aer only two books, I think, no? I’d say get the simplest one. 🙂

      • Avatar
        Stephen  November 24, 2019

        Then how confident should we be of the results of the analysis?

  7. Avatar
    veritas  November 21, 2019

    I’m with you Dr.Ehrman.Any difference or variant,to me, is critical on the outcome of the story to get the true picture.I would want to know for certain(or at least as best probable) key events/ characteristics of Jesus.A couple of important points I struggled with is,1)Jesus seemed always subordinate to God and not himself God,2)If he was God,how could he not know when the end times would occur.He seemed more of an apocalyptic preacher.Again,it depends which book you read.In churches today,most sermons have the N.T crunched together and you hear the same verses repeated over and over and over……. thus it sounds very much as one story.Plus,I believe,most people do not read,or read the Bible in a certain way,and it all sounds the same.In light of what you have discovered,how much did it contradict your belief as a Pastor?Moreover,why were they not evident to you back then?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2019

      Could you put spaces between your sentences? I’m having trouble reading them! It’s funny how what makes sense at one time of one’s life makes no sense later, and vice versa! hard to explain….

      • Avatar
        Sixtus  November 22, 2019


        • Bart
          Bart  November 24, 2019

          Yeah, I know. I was thinking the same thing. HAVEYOUEVERSEENABUNDANCEONTHETABLE?

          • Robert
            Robert  November 25, 2019

            No, but I’ve seen croissants disappear pretty damn fast!

      • Avatar
        veritas  November 24, 2019

        Sorry, I will try to remember those **spaces**. I appreciate your response. Just to follow up on your answer. Didn’t Proverbs 3; 5-6 and Isaiah 55; 8-9 have a profound effect on your belief to not question God and just trust him? I need to ask this because when I frequented church I was always reminded of these verses whenever I asked a question regarding my thoughts, but being a Pastor, aren’t you expected to follow as it is written. Thanks

        • Bart
          Bart  November 24, 2019

          Off hand I don’t recall those verses being *particularly* important to me at the time.

  8. Avatar
    Kmbwhitmore  November 21, 2019

    I have long questioned the idea of the atonement. Paul certainly professed this idea and it is not surprising that Mark does as well because he travelled with Paul and they would therefore be like minded.
    If we accept the idea of the atonement then that would seem like a good thing and the sacrifice is a good thing. But Jesus said, “Father, forgive them they know not what they do”. If Jesus thinks they need forgiveness then he clearly doesn’t think they are doing a good thing.
    Also too, the atonement theory means that Judas, Pontus Pilate and Caiaphas to name a few are merely facilitators of a supposedly good thing. Why then does Pilate want to wash his hands of the matter and why does Judas commit suicide. Why does Jesus tell him it would be better if he had never been born.

  9. Avatar
    forthfading  November 21, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I reread Misquoting Jesus this summer. When I read it the first time I was a conservative Christian bordering on fundamentalism. I remember thinking this was an attack on scripture. When I read it again, now as a very liberal believer, I actually think the opposite. You are not attacking anything! It’s amazing how our views can be so shaped by our biases. I honestly think a better case can be made that you are showing the “real” historical involvement of people in a book believed to be supernatural. My question is a personal one, not a scholarly one. Do you ever just get tired of being misquoted and misunderstood? Does it actually bother you? You should write Misquoting Ehrman! And simply talk about how so many scholars misquote your words and meaning.

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2019

      Yup, it bothers me. But, well, not a heckuva lot can be done about it! Apart from protest.

  10. Avatar
    AstaKask  November 22, 2019

    What do you think of the idea that Marcion based his gospel on Mark and Matthew and Luke based their gospels off of Marcion? It was apparently proposed by a Matthias Klinghardt in 2008 (Klinghardt, Matthias (2008). “The Marcionite Gospel and the Synoptic Problem: A New Suggestion”. Novum Testamentum. 50 (1): 1–27.)

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2019

      I don’t see how it could be possible. Marcion was almost certainly active around 140 CE, and the Gospels are attested before that.

      • Avatar
        RorscHaK  November 26, 2019

        Is it possible that the Marcionite Gospel existed before Marcion? If we do not accept the Orthodox narrative of Marcion redacting Luke, then perhaps he just used an existing Gospel passed down to him.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 26, 2019

          Yes, it’s a debated issue. I have a PhD student who is writing a dissertation that, in part, will be dealing with the issue.

  11. Avatar
    ShonaG  November 22, 2019

    Is there evidence for what sense are one is used? In a mystical sense not only is God and Jesus one but so is the whole of humanity if we are made in God’s image. That sense you can see in the Bible Jesus the homeless man, or the sick or however we turn away. The other I’m not sure about but you study the scriptures more than me so maybe there is a more literal interpretation that fits.

  12. Avatar
    gtrigdon  November 22, 2019


    Given the number of original manuscript textual variants do you think there are ethical issues with making “translation variants”. In particular, one religious group has a translation of the Bible that has long gotten under the skin of the fundamentalists and particularly the evangelicals. For example, they take the liberty of inserting the divine name in the Greek NT although it doesn’t appear in any of the extant manuscripts. Their argument is that in older versions of the Greek Septuagint the divine name of God represented by the Hebrew tetragrammaton was left in the texts but then removed by later Greek Septuagint texts and substituted with the Greek word Kyrios. Given we don’t have copies of any of the first century NT manuscripts, do you think it is acceptable to take liberties in translations based on such historical extrapolation? For example, when the NT quotes the Hebrew Bible where the tetragrammaton appeared do you think a historical case could be made (given what is claimed about the textual variations in the Septuagint) that first century Greek NT writings may have retained the Hebrew tetragrammaton and that it was removed in later copies which used the Greek word Kyrios instead? Further, given so many existing textual manuscripts variants, do you think translation variants actually matter in the larger context?


    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2019

      It’s always a matter of weighing evidence and establishing probability — which means that any claim about the text that has zero manuscript support has to have a VERY strong argument in order to be considered. I don’t think this counts as one. We have no evidence that I’m aware of that the early Greek-speaking followers of Jesus every used the actual Hebrew tetragrammaton.

  13. Avatar
    jogon  November 22, 2019

    Hi Bart, I was wondering what your view is on Mike Licona’s comments on his recent post that:

    1. Research by a student of his has shown that most publications by critical scholars since 1965 show that the majority believe that Peter is the main source behind Mark?

    2. The majority of critical scholars believe John is based on eyewitness reports/written by John?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2019

      1. I don’t know how he did his count. Or what he considers to be a “critical” scholar. So it’s impossible to say. 2. No, I think that’s dead wrong. But again I don’t know how he’s counting.

    • Avatar
      hankgillette  November 23, 2019

      I was interested in this, also, especially the “since 1965” part. 1965 is over 50 years ago! While I don’t think New Testament scholarship has changed as much as the fields of science, how relevant is even a brilliant scholar’s opinion from 1965?

      • Bart
        Bart  November 24, 2019

        It *can* be relevant, but like all opinions, it needs to be critically examined.

  14. Avatar
    JoeWallack  November 22, 2019

    As always I wonder why I’m the one who has to tell you this. Regarding your discussion of Textual Criticism above, you are only discussing Micro issues and not Macro ones. This is the setting a Christian Textual Critic wants. A Skeptic should not just accept it.

    Macro Textual Criticism involves entire Gospels or at least major chunks. The most important is that GMatthew/GLuke are themselves Textual Variation of GMark. What did Jesus (supposedly) really say? That is one of the most important Christian assertions. Every Canonical Gospel has a significant Macro issue:

    GMark = Secret Mark

    GMatthew = Ebionite Matthew

    GLuke = Marcion Luke

    GJohn = Gnostic John

    My problem is how to reduce this to the one required question. What is your favorite color?


  15. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 23, 2019

    Those new to the blog might want to google “Johannine Comma” and read about how this Trinity passage was not found in early New Testament texts. Eventually it was found in Latin texts, but not in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, and by the fourteenth century C.E. begin appearing in Greek texts. The main point is that the Trinity passage was not in early Greek New Testament texts so most likely it was not in the original Greek text and was added by a later scribe perhaps to promote the idea of the Trinity. I also found a reference stating that Erasmus quoted the Trinity passage, but I am not sure that is reliable history. Is it?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 24, 2019

      Ah, there’s an interesting *apocryphal* story about Erasmus and the passage. I’ll see if I can track it down and post it.

  16. Avatar
    sjhicks21  November 25, 2019

    Not sure if this is off topic, but recently I stumbled across what appears to be a raging controversy in evangelical circles called the New Perspective by N.T. Wright. My take on it is that Mr. Wright is modifying from a conservative Christian perspective, the theology of justification by faith through an analysis of Pauline theology in his letters. To me this points out the problem of interpreting what the text means even if you know precisely what the text is. In addition, my reading of the controversy is that both have misinterpreted Paul, but do so because they are starting from a different theological bias. My question is what is your take on this controversy and how important do you think it is. Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 26, 2019

      The new perspective was not started by Wright. It’s been around for a long time now, and so is not particularly new. The very short story is that it tries to understand Paul’s thought in light of what we know about his Jewish context, rather than in light of the theological categories provided by Martin Luther and the protestant reformation. So for most of us it’s not a radical view at all.

  17. Avatar
    mathieu  November 27, 2019

    I think even seeming small differences are important. For example, I know there is no punctuation in the original texts, so commas and stuff were added later.
    It may be an old saw, but I’m looking at Luke:23:43.
    Is it:
    Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise.
    Verily I say unto thee today, shalt thou be with me in paradise.

    A little differences with a big difference in meaning.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2019

      Ah, I have an argument about that, about how it has to be punctuated, in my recent book. I think I’ll post it, since it’s an interesting issue.

  18. Avatar
    Brand3000  December 1, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Someone said that it could very well be “Cephas and the Twelve…James and all the apostles” Instead of the commonly interpreted “Cephas, and then to the Twelve… James, then to all the apostles” Is this true or does the NRSV (as well as the other major versions) have it right?

  19. Avatar
    joemccarron  December 16, 2019

    Whether something is significant, of course, depends on why you read scripture.

    If you are reading scripture with the aim to know how we should live our life as Christians, then nothing you indicated matters. Christ’s messages on how we should live seems to be repeated very often. For example the adulteress story in John is an example of do not judge others more harshly than you want to be judged yourself – which in turn can be seen as part of treating others as you want to be treated. It also illustrates Christs view of old testament law but that is again repeated over and over where Jesus heals on the sabbath teaches that men should not divorce their wives with notice etc.

    If you are reading scripture to understand what each author originally wrote then of course every single minor variant (beyond just a clear spelling error) will, by definition, matter. So on that view if a variant says they caught 1000 fish and another says they caught 1001 fish it is significant because the intended meaning changes.

  20. Avatar
    Klas  January 15, 2020

    A textual variant that changed my life

    As a devout young Jehova’s Witness in 1972, I was very proud to receive God’s own words in Greek, by one of the elders. He gave it to me as I was very interested in languages. I understood English from school but knew nothing of Greek, of course.

    This Bible was called Emphatic Diaglott and that was the the pure text, the basic text of the Truth so I opened it with great veneration.

    At that time, I swallowed everything that the elders said as the rock solid Truth, even that Armageddon would come in 1975.

    The False Religions had distorted translations and we had the Right Translation because we trusted the Emphatic Diaglott and now I could look into it. A big moment.

    But where should I start? There I got an idea, because we had recently learned that Matthew 5:3, did not in fact say that “the poor in spirit” should inherit the earth but that “those who are conscious of their spiritual need” should receive that favor. Very important because in our True Religion, you had to be a well educated bible student to survive Armageddon into Paradise.
    So now I should check with the Emphatic Diaglott that this was true. But it was not.
    I looked and looked but the correct translation word for word was indeed that the “poor in spirit” should inherit the earth.

    I was in shock. Had the Brothers in Brooklyn (the wise men who had direct contact with God) changed the wording of the true Bible?

    It was a blow to my faith, the first one in a series of events that led to me abandoning that faith half a year later.

    PS. And NOW almost 50 years later, I have become very interested in the Bible. During my childhood and youth, I spent 8- 10 hours a week reading it and preaching it. In total perhaps up to 5 000 hours, and that knowledge does not disappear easily. It is very interesting to get into this history, so thank you Bart for making it accessible to us non-scholars.

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