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Misconstruing My Words. Can We Know What the Authors of the New Testament Originally Said?

Sometimes people take what I say to an extreme that I don’t mean to convey.  That especially happens when I talk about the textual criticism of the New Testament.   As a reminder, “textual criticism” is a technical term.  It does not refer to the interpretation of texts or to the history behind the composition of texts or to the assessment of the original context of texts or anything like that.  It is used to refer specifically to the attempt to reconstruct the words of a text.  That is, textual criticism is not interested in understanding what the text means; it is interested in figuring out what words the author originally used.  And in seeing how the author’s original words may have been changed over in the process of copying.

Textual criticism is a fundamental aspect of literary study – certainly for the Bible, but for all texts.  There are textual critics who avidly work on the classics (Homer, Virgil, Cicero, etc. etc.); and on medieval literature and on modern literature.  It’s a huge field, e.g., in Shakespeare, but also in, say, 19th century English poets, etc.   You can’t really give an interpretation of what Hamlet means if you don’t know what the words were.  And the reality is that it’s impossible to know what Shakespeare originally wrote.  I won’t go into that here, but look it up: textual criticism of Shakespeare is a really major problem.  As with the writings of the New Testament, there is a widespread sense that it doesn’t even make sense to talk about “the original” text of Hamlet.  If you check around about Shakespeare scholarship, you’ll see.

My field, of course, is New Testament, and in a number of my books I’ve talked about the textual criticism of the Christian Scriptures.  I absolutely stand by everything I’ve ever said in writing (so far as I know!) about the problems, and I’ll restate them here.  But I want to stress that I have never meant them to be taken to the extreme that some people have taken them to, either in fervently agreeing with me (when they’re actually “agreeing” with something I don’t think) or vehemently opposing me (again, over something I don’t think).

So let me say it clearly:  it is NOT my opinion that …

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  1. Avatar
    Rthompsonmdog  October 8, 2019

    Your /private tag is showing at the end of the post.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 8, 2019

      Thanks. I’ll take care of it….

    • Avatar
      Pegill7  October 8, 2019

      What does that mean?

      • Bart
        Bart  October 9, 2019

        He means that I didn’t code the post correctly and so it appeared incorrectly. I changed it so you wouldnt’ have noticed.

  2. Avatar
    Epaminondas  October 8, 2019

    As the Captain said in ‘Cool Hand Luke’, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” As you pointed out, “textual criticism” is a technical term. But I suspect most laypeople automatically hear that as “(negative) criticism of the text”. It’s unfortunate that “textual analysis” or some other more accurate academic term was not originally adopted.

  3. Avatar
    mombird903  October 8, 2019

    I have heard people talk about a “golden thread” that runs thru. the Bible. I can’t imagine what that could be, can you Bart? What does that mean? Anyway, there’s Gideon’s Bible, the King James Bible, and a zillion others so why would that be so if the Bible is the inerrant word of God? This is not to mention all the various languages it has been translated into. Honestly, this just boggles the mind. Do you remember when Obama was sworn into office and had to put his hand on the old tattered Bible they use for that occasion? Someone said it looked like Hogwart’s Book of Spells. That about sums up the entire thing in my mind.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 9, 2019

      Golden thread? No- I’m not sure what that refers to.

  4. Avatar
    quadell  October 8, 2019

    It’s weird how our human brains work. We are comfortable with “We know for certain”, and we are comfortable with “We have no idea”, but we’re less comfortable with “probably”. So one scholar will say “We can’t be sure that the Gospel of Mark originally said X”, and another will say “There are very good reasons to think that the Gospel of Mark originally said X”, and people will hear them as standing on opposite poles, even though they would actually agree with each other’s statements.

  5. Robert
    Robert  October 8, 2019

    Bart: “There are large numbers of people on this planet who think that the Bible contains God’s very words, down to a “t”.  These are words that God wrote, exactly.  And when we read the words, we hear the voice of God himself.”

    ‘Matthew’ seems to think Jesus was one of these people, based on a quotation from his Sondergut about not one jot or tittle of the law passing away until heaven or earth pass away or until all things come to be (Mt 5,18; contrast Mk 13, 30-31).

    Was Matthew perhaps dealing with factions within his community, perhaps some of whom might have been more observant than others? Do you think Jesus himself had said something like this?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 9, 2019

      Yes, I think he’s certainly trying to stress to his community that they have to keep the entire law. But what he *means* by “the entire law” is up for grabs, as far as I’m concerned (having puzzled over it for about 40 years!). Does he mean kosher food?

      • Avatar
        Iskander Robertson  October 9, 2019

        DAvid c sim wrote: The Matthean Jesus spells out clearly in .– that all of the Mosaic Law without exception is to be obeyed until the parousia, and it is expected that his followers will obey the Torah and teach it to others until that time. It therefore comes as no surprise to learn that Matthew omitted completely the Marcan comment in Mark :b. In Matthew’s version of this pericope, there is no indication at all that Jesus undermined the Jewish rules regarding clean and unclean foods; the emphasis remains on the non-biblical Pharisaic practice of ritual handwashing.

        End quote

        any response to this?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 11, 2019

          Yes, I think I pretty much agree; though it’s odd that Jesus never *says* anything about purity rituals in Matthew….

      • Avatar
        Duke12  October 9, 2019

        Related question and lay person speculation: I’ve noticed some people prefer to believe Church tradition had it right: that the Gospel of Matthew came first despite all the modern evidence strongly suggesting it was derived from Mark. So I’m curious: is it possible that the Hebrew (Aramaic?) Gospel of Matthew really was the first written Gospel and that Greek “Matthew” was mistakenly associated with Hebrew Matthew (because those making the comparison couldn’t actually read Hebrew or had never actually seen Hebrew Matthew)? Or maybe Greek Matthew really was intended as a translation of Hebrew Matthew, but was so thoroughly derived from Mark as to be its own work rather than a genuine translation? Or could Mark have been derived from Hebrew Matthew and then Greek Matthew derived from Mark? To my lay eyes, the claim that Mark came first sounds convincing, but then why did the Church fathers insist that Matthew came first? Can it all be traced back to Papias?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 11, 2019

          Yes, those are all possible — except for it coming from Papias, whcih simply doesn’t work because of the dates. The problem is that there are probalby a thousand different options that are theoretically possible, and when you start digging down into the evidence, almost all of them come to be pretty clearly improbable. E.g., If Matthew were first and written in Hebrew, then you’re right, it would have had to be translated into Greek before Mark used it (which he must have done, because they are often word for word the same in Greek). But (a) the Greek of Matthew does not appear to derive from a translation of a Semitic original (there are ways of detecting that); (b) there’s not much time for a Hebrew Matthew to circulate, be copied, be translated, be circulated, be copied, and then be used by the author of Mark, who almost certainly was writing around 70CE and (c) I’m not sure who would *write* a Hebrew Gospel since the author does not appear to have been from Palestine and even if he was teh vast majority of people spoke Aramaic….

  6. epicurus
    epicurus  October 8, 2019

    Calling it textual criticism probably sets inerrantists on edge right from the get go. Maybe scholars should start calling it textual analysis or something.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 9, 2019

      Actually there are a lot of evangelical/fundamentalist scholars who are textual critics and call themselves that! Strangely so, perhaps!

    • Avatar
      doug  October 10, 2019

      That’s a good point, epicurus. “Criticism” is thought of by some people as saying bad things about something. “Analysis” might be seen as being more neutral than negative. Of course, there is probably no pleasing Fundamentalists, aside from devout obedience.

  7. Avatar
    Maglaw  October 8, 2019

    Bart, which book of the NT exists in the oldest copy we have – where are most of these very old copies located? It’s my understanding that the earliest copies go back to about the 300s, but of course I could be wrong. Thanks, Maggie

    • Bart
      Bart  October 9, 2019

      There are fragments (a famous one of John — just a small scrap the size of a credit card) that are often dated back to the second century. But yes, the first full copies are from the fourth century, and we have only a couple of those.

  8. Avatar
    Johnkunnathi  October 8, 2019

    Absolutely true. We can never know what the writers really meant in many of the contexts.

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 8, 2019

    For those new to the blog, I strongly recommend Dr. Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” which deals with textual criticism in a very understandable way.

  10. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  October 8, 2019

    New International Version
    “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.

    how do you understand the words “my soul is troubled” ?
    do you think that the “trouble” in johns version is not the “trouble” in marks version?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 9, 2019

      Are you asking if Jesus in John has the exact same mental state going to his death as in Mark? No, I’d say clearly not. In John he is aware he must die and it might be somewhat troubling; in Mark he is in deep anguish, not knowing why it has to happen.

      • Avatar
        Confused777  October 9, 2019

        How can you say in Marks Gospel he doesn’t know why it’s happening when in it says earlier in 8:31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again . ?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 11, 2019

          Yes, he certainly knows in 8:31 (and 9:31 and 10:33-34). But appears confused at the end. Possibly he knows *that* he has to die (as in the earlier verses) but not fully *why* he has to die. There do appear to be some inconsistencies in Mark’s portrayal I’d say, hard to work out entirely.

        • Avatar
          Iskander Robertson  October 11, 2019

          if jesus is asking to be saved and repeatedly begs god to save him, then jesus does not know the mind of the father, he thinks there is STILL a way out “all things are possible for you”

          but this seems to be against the teaching of john which never has jesus make prayer to be saved. john has will of the father and son as one. “i and the father r one” and i am commanded what to say

      • Avatar
        Iskander Robertson  October 9, 2019

        in one version he is in control, in the other he isnt?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 11, 2019

          Yes, in one (two, actually: Luke nad John) he’s calm and in control and knows exactly what’s happening and why; in the other (Mark) not.

  11. Avatar
    fishician  October 8, 2019

    Unrelated, but tonight begins Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. As a Christian I assumed that of course Jesus was the Passover lamb; that’s why he took his entourage into Jerusalem on Passover. But the Day of Atonement was actually the Jewish observance that was associated with forgiveness of sins. Passover was really about Israel escaping from Egypt’s oppression; the Passover lamb was part of that escape narrative, and not associated with forgiveness of sins. So, now I think Jesus went to Jerusalem on Passover because that is when he expected God to finally deliver Israel from oppression by the Romans and establish His kingdom once again. It was only after his death that his followers retrofitted him as the Passover lamb and tied it to forgiveness of sins. If forgiving mankind’s sin was the point, you’d think he would have gone on Yom Kippur. Make sense?

    • fefferdan
      fefferdan  October 12, 2019

      It does to me but not entirely. Passover is a festival, marked by feasting and storytelling. So if his disciples were right that he intended to “restore the kingdom to Israel” then Passover would be a good time for a messianic “coming out” party. Yom Kippur is solemn, marked by fasting , repentance forgiveness and atonement. So yes, in that sense Yom Kippur works. But here’s the problem. Yom Kippur does have the tradition of the scapegoat, on whom the sins of the nation are laid. But the scapegoat isn’t a sacrifice. It is to be released alive. So the Yom Kippur tradition doesn’t work that well either. If Jesus intended to get himself crucified with only a handful of witnesses, any old time would do IMO.

  12. Avatar
    Rita Gomes  October 8, 2019

    Dear Professor Bart.

    here in Brazil there are some “evangelical” churches that use the bible to deceive people and get rich, here the church is tax free.

    I don’t call them churches, but sects.
    Every verse of the Old and New Testaments is millimeter thinking to say that God wants money.

    They even managed to elect a president who wants to turn the country into an evangelical country.

    Then I read your books, the ones you indicate and I think there is only one right passage throughout Bible, it’s in Deuteronomy, Matthew and 1 Thessalonians. They are the false prophets.
    maybe it’s because they already existed before the bible.

  13. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  October 9, 2019

    can you explain “might be somewhat troubling ” ?

    could it be that john is “troubled ” by marks version where jesus repeatedly begs to be rescued ?

    25Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

    Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say?

    i.dont really see that in johns version jesus is really troubled, but maybe john is troubled with marks jesus that he even suggest that jesus ask to be rescued?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 11, 2019

      I don’t see that he’s much troubled either. But I suppose knowing you’re going to be tortured to death the next day might be troubling even to the son of God….

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  October 13, 2019

        To the son of god, and a member of the Trinity, getting ‘tortured to death’ to fulfill the whole purpose of the world, wouldn’t even be as stressful as getting a flu shot.

        That’s one of the biggest logical inconsistencies of the whole story, from a theological standpoint. There was ‘no passion’.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 14, 2019

          Think I disagree there. I may know I have to do something unpleasant for the sake of my kids, and understand full well why I have to do it, and know also that it’s not gonna matter in the long run. But it’s still unpleasant. John’s Jesus says he considered it unpleasant. So I don’t think it’s probably right to claim he didn’t really because of our own theological views about the nature of the Trinity. John didn’t have those views.

          • Avatar
            HawksJ  October 14, 2019

            He is/was god eternal or he wasn’t. If he is/was, then a few hours of mortal pain approaches something infinitely less than a flu shot.

            If he knew what was happening (which is clearly John’s story), then obviously he was a god in some sense.

            If he didn’t understand what was happening, then he was just a man – at least at that point. Again, that is clearly not the story John wanted others to believe.

            John’s view has logical inconsistencies; such is the nature of all theologies. That’s rather the point.

          • Avatar
            Duke12  October 17, 2019

            Since God can do anything, presumably the divine Jesus could have chosen to fully feel pain as a human. He could also have deliberately kept himself in ignorance of any knowledge other than what the Father revealed to him. Illogical? Sure. But if the transcendent God is above human logic, then why not? In Eastern Orthodox theology Jesus is both present and suffering on the Cross and present dispassionately in heaven with the Father. It makes no attempt to explain this apparent contradiction or reconcile it. Orthodoxy is big on mystery and paradox — a reason why I still prefer to belong to it even though I’ve read and agree with most of Bart’s books.

          • Bart
            Bart  October 18, 2019

            Yup, that’s certainly one way to look at it! But I don’t think it’s how the author of the Gospel of John was looking at it.

  14. Avatar
    jjtechno2  October 9, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,
    Fundamentalists aside, perhaps it would serve us all if more of the language of scholarship could be easily explained to lay readers. You have a wonderful talent in your writings that is very understandable. I am reading Raymond Brown’s book that Francis Mahoney edited, “An Introduction the Gospel of John” and it gives me a headache. I suspect the monographs and notes it is based on would appear as gibberish to the average reader.

    • Avatar
      quadell  October 13, 2019

      The beginning of Brown’s “An Introduction to the Gospel of John” is really difficult to get through. I’ve read a lot of Brown’s works, and this was honestly the least easy to read. I’d recommend his “An Introduction to the New Testament” — it’s much more approachable. Or, since you’re here, Bart Ehrman has written a similar book, “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings” — I like to read both together to have two different scholarly takes on the same subjects.

      • Bart
        Bart  October 14, 2019

        Yes, he sometimes wrote for scholars and sometimes for nonscholars, and that’s the difference!

  15. Avatar
    Brand3000  October 9, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    We are all looking foward to the new book on the afterlife, do you expect that there will be previews soon on Amazon and Google books?

  16. Avatar
    Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  October 12, 2019

    I have always been surprised by the little value that NT scholars give to the chain of transmission of the facts and sayings of Jesus that are narrated in the Gospels.
    That lack of traceability of the tradition of oral transmission on which the Gospels are said to be based is very shocking and contrasts sharply with Islam (*), where such traceability is fundamental.
    There are many episodes in the Gospels in which there are no eyewitnesses who can tell the facts with a minimum of reliability.
    An example that has always attracted my attention is the text that appears in Matthew 4: 1-11 (and in Luke 4: 1-13) in which it is narrated as Jesus was tested in the Wilderness.
    Leaving aside the absurdity of all this fact, which falls from the less common and theological sense (the Spirit of God takes the Son of God who is also God, to be tempted by a miserable and irrelevant creature in the eyes of God), it was Jesus himself who told “Matthew” and “Luke” this episode so amazing and surreal?

    Something similar happens in Gethsemane, where even though Jesus, when separating from the other disciples, took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, he left them to go alone to pray: Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will. ”Did Peter and Zebedee’s two sons hear him pray? And when he turned away from the sleeping disciples, did he take again witnesses with him to take note of his prayers when he separated from them for two more times?

    We have the case of a person who is the only witness to his own acts and what he declares cannot be verified. Believing that self-testimony is pure matter of faith and subjectivity.
    (*)The hadith is made up of two parts of the genealogy (Isnäd or Sánad) in which the transmission line from the Prophet Muhammad and from the sahaba that recorded it is related, the biography of the members of the chain of transmission, since if someone of unworthy conduct was detected, the chain was invalidated. The other part of the hadith is the text (Matn) that can present contradictions between the different authors, but never in its meaning.

  17. Avatar
    Brand3000  October 16, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    In the Last Supper tradition in 1 Cor.11 the correct translation being “handed over,” was this meant to mean to the Roman authorities?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2019

      Possibly so. Unless it means “handed over to death” — which is how Paul uses the term in Romans 8:32.

  18. Avatar
    Brand3000  October 29, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    In 1 Cor. 9:1 and 1 Cor. 15:5-8 does Paul use the language of ordinary visual sight? Or maybe better put: Whether one thinks these verses are describing a literal seeing of the risen Jesus or just visions, would the same language be used as is used here?
    I am asking because someone who is known to be ultra-critical said this: “The key is that you have to use the definition of “visions” (meaning epiphanies) or “revelations” (meaning apocalyptic visions) that would have been operative in the ancient G-R and Jewish contexts. Modern theories simply do not work here, and that’s where many problems creep in.” Notice he even reduces things to epiphanies, and elsewhere even suggests dreams, which seems even weaker than visions. IN CONCLUSION: Do you think it is fair to say that the issue of an objective vs. a subjective seeing cannot be made certain via the language alone?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2019

      I don’t know what the difference between objective seeing and subjective seeing is. We are subjects, so any time we see something we are being subjective. The word Paul uses is “to see” but in the passive voice “Christ was seen by me” — but in Greek, that particular verb, in the passive, carries an active meaning “appeared to me”

      • Avatar
        Brand3000  October 30, 2019

        Dr. Ehrman,

        Ok then that seems pretty straightfoward, because this guy is trying to tell me, and maybe it’s a bit agenda driven, that Paul’s language is clearly not what would be expected if he simply wanted to say that “he appeared” or “was seen by” in the normal way of seeing anything else that may actually appear to someone. Better yet, to get right to the point, let’s say you’re a believer for a moment and you think that the resurrected Jesus himself really did appear, do you think Paul’s language would be the same as we find it in 1 Cor. 9:1 and 1 Cor. 15:5-8?? Thanks.

  19. Avatar
    joemccarron  February 7, 2020

    Here you say:

    “Most of the time scholars agree on what the originals said. But not all of the time. Those are facts.”

    It sounds like you were unwilling to concede this point to Dr. Wallace. see e.g., your response to the question at, 1:45:13

    At 1:47:50 you say “for the past 20 years you won’t find text critics talking about the original text will you?” But right here you say “Most of the time scholars agree on what the originals said.” So *you* are talking about the original texts. Now this video is from 2011 so I would think maybe you changed your mind. But you just posted this video a few days ago. This blog post seems to agree with Dr. Wallace’s position that no we can’t “know with absolute certainty” and sure our agreement doesn’t make it so. But we can achieve a decent amount of probability to reach agreement on most of what is said in the originals. At least that seems a fair summary of his position in the debate. But you seem to fight it.

    I do not want to misconstrue your position. But I am really not sure what to make of this. I think the position you take in this blog is much more reasonable but you seem to reject it in the debate. What am I missing?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2020

      Yeah, I’m afraid you’re not catching the nuances of my various statements. It’s a rather complicated and subtle set of arguments. But no, scholars do not generally talk about the “original” text any more, because of the methodological problems getting there. My first comment you quote was a kind of “short hand.” There I”m saying that if you ask most scholars if Mark say X in, say, Mark 1:15, they would say yes. And they would interpret those words (X) as mark’s words. They would agree that those are the words he originally wrote. But if you pushed them and said can we know that these words are original, they would explain that all we can do is get back to the oldest form of the text and make the practical leap of, for purposes of exegesis, imagining it as the original. It’s the same thing for all ancient texts — not just biblical. and for Shakespeare! And for lots of other modern texts….

      • Avatar
        joemccarron  February 10, 2020

        Thank you for this response. I think part of the problem I have is you keep saying we can’t “know” but Wallace and I agree with that. There is a difference between “knowing” what the original says and having a decent probabilistic estimate. When I “know” X that implies I assign *very* high probability to X being true. (Way over 50%)

        But a decent probabilistic estimate could mean “more likely that not it is true” or it could mean “as best we can tell it is true.” Saying “as best we can tell it is true” does not necessarily mean it is “more likely than not true”. “More likely than not” suggests a probability of greater than 50%. “As best we can tell it is true” could mean we have a higher probability than 50% or it could be a lower probability.

        So maybe what you mean is that most scholars would agree that “as best we can tell” Mark 1:15 was in the original, but that does not necessarily mean it is greater than 50% that Mark 1:15 was in the original. Some scholars may think it more than 50% probable others may not, but “more probable than not” is no longer the standard used in evaluating these claims.

        If that is what you mean then both you and Wallace agree we do not “know” Mark 1:15 is in the original. Wallace would say it is “more probable than not” Mark 1:15 in the original and you would say it is in the original “as best we can tell” but would stop short of saying it is greater than 50%. Is that the distinction?

        But in the debate with Wallace you also make a different sort of argument. You kept asking along the lines how do we “know” if earliest copies were not copied from “thoroughly erroneous” copies? And if you don’t “know” then how can you say we can trust the text of the new testament? You suggest he has a burden of proof here because he is asking us to trust something. And since he did not meet that burden of proof we shouldn’t trust it. I’ll post on that next.

      • Avatar
        joemccarron  February 10, 2020

        Your second approach seemed to be if we don’t have evidence the copy used wasn’t “thoroughly erroneous” then the person asking us to trust them doesn’t meet his/her “burden of proof.”

        There several problems here. One is that just because we don’t have evidence that specifically addresses every imagined scenario that would lead to “not X” that does not mean we don’t have good evidence for X. In the debate you said that if we had 10 earlier transcripts of Mark, we could trust what was in Mark.1:52:55. But even if we had those transcripts we still wouldn’t have evidence to exclude the possibility that they were not copies of a thoroughly erroneous copy. Just because we don’t have evidence that specifically addresses an imagined scenario that doesn’t mean we don’t have very good evidence.

        In asking for 10 earlier copies you asked for a *better* evidence not evidence of a different *form*. Consider a text from the first century that is mentioned in many lists but is lost. We have no quotes from it or any copies. Let’s say tomorrow archaeologists find a 9th century text claiming to be a copy of this text. I would say we have some evidence what the original said. Would you agree that, after that find, it would be unreasonable to say we have “no evidence at all” what the original said? Now let’s say a month later they find another 9th century text in a different part of the world that closely matches the first find. It seems to me we then have even better evidence of what the original said. We can go on with more texts and earlier texts. As we do this we get better and better probabilities. At some point most people would agree we are over 50%.

        Now, of course, in all these cases we can always ask, how do we know that all of these texts weren’t copied from an early copy of this text that was “thoroughly erroneous”? But failing to provide evidence that this imagined hypothetical does not mean we don’t have good evidence of what the original said. You said as much when you said the 10 copies in Rome would be good evidence.

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