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Paul in a Nutshell and NT Views of Crucifixion: Readers Mailbag May 13, 2016

In this week’s Readers Mailbag I will deal with two rather massively significant questions, one on the life and message of Paul and the other on the different understandings of Jesus crucifixion in the New Testament.

If you have any question(s) you would like me to address in the future, let me know!




I am wondering what you would consider the most important things to know about the Apostle Paul.   Sometimes when I am forced to give a succinct answer to a question, it can have a lot of value.  So while I will be going into some depth in the Sunday School class, including referencing some of your work, I would love to hear your expertise on Paul distilled into a brief summary (if at all possible).



Right!  Obviously some scholars have written very long books on Paul’s life, message, and mission.  So, let me give here the very basic essentials, as I see them, in bullet point form.

  • Paul started life as a highly religious Jew, zealous to follow the law of God as given by Moses in the Torah.
  • When he first heard of Jews declaring Jesus the messiah, he was incensed and did what he could to stamp out this false religion.
  • But he then had a vision of Jesus (as he himself says) that convinced him that Jesus had indeed been raised from the dead.
  • He realized that God had done a great miracle for Jesus, which showed him that Jesus really was the Son of God, and that his death must have been according to the divine plan.
  • Paul came to think that the death of Jesus was a sacrifice for the sins of others (that’s why God had his chosen one die), which God honored by raising Jesus from the dead.
  • A person needed to believe in this act of God through Christ in order to have salvation.
  • But that meant…

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  • But that mean being a member of God’s people was not by keeping the Jewish Law rigorously, but by believing in God’s dying and rising messiah.
  • Paul immediately saw the implications of this for gentiles: they did not have to adopt the ways of Judaism to be right with God. All they needed was to believe in the death and resurrection of the Christ.
  • Paul considered himself called by God to proclaim this message to the gentiles.
  • He began a life of missionary preaching, proclaiming his gospel in principally gentile cities in Arabia, Cilicia, Syria, Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Macedonia, and Achaia (modern Greece).
  • After he would leave one community of believers that he founded he would go to another city to start anew.
  • When he heard of problems in the churches he had previously established, he would write letters to them do explain what they should believe and how they should behave.
  • We have seven of those letters still in the New Testament; six other letters of the New Testament claim to be written by Paul but probably were not. Their authors used Paul’s name in order to provide authority for their views.
  • During his ministry Paul encountered a good deal of opposition, some of it from other Christian spokespersons who believed that to follow the Jewish messiah Jesus, a person had to become Jewish (and thus keep the Jewish law, including the law of circumcision).
  • Paul was also opposed by local ruling authorities who saw him as a troublemaker and subjected him to judicial punishment.
  • The early church tradition indicates that he eventually travelled to Rome, where he experienced martyrdom under the Roman emperor Nero.



Can you compare and go over what you believe was the theological meaning intended of the crucifixion/resurrection as between the different gospels and the epistle writers?



Ah, again, this is not easy in 400 words!   My sense is that there are very large differences among the authors of the New Testament.

  • Our earliest author, Paul, understands Jesus’ death in a variety of ways. On one hand it brings an atonement for sin, making it possible for a person to be restored to a right standing before God (in that it was some kind of sacrificial offering accepted by God), as seen in the fact that he raised Jesus from the dead.  On the other hand it was also the means by which God conquered the powers that are aligned against him, the cosmic powers of sin and death.  Christ took “sin” onto himself and died, thereby killing sin.  And he conquered death when he was raised from the dead.  His followers can participate in this victory over sin and death by being baptized, since at that point a person experiences a mystical union with Christ and is united then with him in his death to sin.
  • Our earliest Gospel, Mark, understands Jesus’ death principally as an atonement for sin: Christ died for the sake of others in order to provide them with direct access to God. That is why, when Jesus dies in Mark, the curtain in the temple separating the holy of holies (where God dwelt) is torn in half, to show that it is the death of Jesus that makes God directly available to those who believe.
  • Our final Gospel, John, still understands that Jesus’ death was for the sake of others, his life being given that others might never die.  But he also understands that Jesus’ death was, for him, Jesus, personally, the beginning of his return to glory.  Jesus for John was the incarnation of the Word of God, a divine being who descended from heaven to become temporarily human.  Once his work on earth is accomplished, he returns to heaven, starting with the crucifixion where, as John says, Jesus is “lifted up.”  This is an intentionally ironic  view: Jesus is “exalted” at his crucifixion in that he is raised above the ground, and this marks the beginning of his return to the heavenly realm whence he came.
  • In some ways the most distinctive understanding of the crucifixion-resurrection is in the Gospel of Luke. This author eliminated all references to the atoning character of Jesus death and to the idea that Jesus died “for” others.  Instead, Jesus crucifixion is portrayed as a grotesque miscarriage of justice against an innocent man.  Salvation comes when a person realizes just how unjust Jesus’ execution was, feels guilt for the sin that she or he has committed, repents of that sin, and turns to God for forgiveness.   The death of Jesus here is not an atonement for sin; it is the occasion for turning to God in repentance so that he might forgive.



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  1. Avatar
    JR  May 13, 2016

    Great summary of Paul. More ‘faithful’ to the text than the traditional reformed understanding that his main message was that people need to stop justifying themselves through good works and trust in grace alone. I think the reformers read Paul as if he was writing against the Catholic Church and not 1st century Jewish Christians.

  2. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  May 13, 2016

    I read this today in a book by Eduard Loring of the Open Door Community in Atlanta (a part of the Catholic Worker Movement):
    “The Christmas story was told two thousand years ago. The truth was smushed to the ground in the fourth century when Emperor Constantine transmogrified Jesus into the Roman war god setting the birthday celebration of Jesus the Jew at December 25. This date linked Jesus to Mithras, the Persian sun god, to embed the peacemaking prophet and slain founder of faith in the religion of a war god.”
    Where do ideas like that come from? Is any shred of it true, beyond his first sentence?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2016

      Constantine identified Christ with Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun, whom Constantine had worshiped before his conversion, and so he put the time of Jesus’ birth on the day of the mythological birth of the God of the Sun.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  May 15, 2016

        But…I learned long ago (probably from Catholic sources) that the feast of Jesus’s birth (Dec. 25), and that of John the Baptist (June 24), were meant to be taken together as related, roughly, to the solstices. One of them was set a week before the first of the month we call January, the other a week before the first of the month we call July. The “relationship” isn’t obvious because December has 31 days, and June only 30.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  May 13, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, do you ever notice that Paul is constantly recapitulating his bona fides? Do you find this suspicious? I do.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2016

      Yes, he definitely wants his readers to know that he is uniquely qualified…. I don’t find it suspicious particularly, but I wish we had more information that could help us understand it psychologically. But alas…

      • talmoore
        talmoore  May 15, 2016

        Well, speaking as a social scientist, I know of only two reasons that someone would use valuable parchment space to reinterate his credentials. Either A) his credentials have regularly come into question, or B) he’s paranoid that his credentials are regularly coming into question. In either case, it seems a tad suspicious.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 16, 2016

          Well, maybe he simply wants to stress that he knows what he’s talking about, on the assumption that he needed a boost to his authoritative proclamations.

      • Avatar
        jhague  May 15, 2016

        Isn’t at least one reason why Paul kept telling his readers that he was qualified is because so many people were saying he was not?

  4. Avatar
    john76  May 13, 2016

    I would add that Paul thought the end of days was imminent, as evidenced by Paul calling Christ the “first fruits (1 Corinthians 15:23)” of the general resurrection.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2016

      Yup, important addition.

      • TWood
        TWood  May 19, 2016

        Bart, I hear all the time (mostly from Darbyite fundamentalists) that Paul and the earliest Christians (up to 65 CE or so) believed Christ’s return was “imminent.” Not to be pedantic, but it seems to me that “imminent” isn’t the best word to use. It’s clear (up until whoever wrote 2 Peter) the earliest Christians thought Christ “could” (and probably would) return in their lifetime. But it wasn’t truly imminent until after Peter died. I suppose we can argue the ending of John’s gospel was not a real tradition, but it seems strange to just make that up about Peter. That is to say… assuming the tradition that Jesus told Peter he’d die an old man is valid… as long as Peter was alive… no early Christian could believe Christ’s return was imminent… no? And whoever wrote 2 Thess also makes it clear that Christ can’t return until “the man of sin” is revealed… so clearly he hadn’t been revealed at the time 2 Thess was written (I assume it was written sometime in the late 50s or in the 60s CE (he seems to imply the temple is standing when he wrote)… my point is that “imminent” seems like the wrong word for the most ancient church… “expectancy” seems more accurate… but perhaps I’m mistaken!

        • Bart
          Bart  May 21, 2016

          I think it is usually assumed that teh combination of “it will be in our lifetimes” and the injunctions “be alert” “be ready” “be awake” suggest that the end was indeed imminent.

  5. Avatar
    jhague  May 13, 2016

    I know historians need evidence for their findings but I also think that opinion and reasonableness falls into play also. I do not generally take Paul at his word and I think he exaggerates often to boost himself up. I think he may have been born Jewish but was not necessarily highly religious as he states. I think he states this to give himself authority just as he does when he insists that he is an apostle even though he never was with Jesus (except through his vision of a cosmic Christ). I also do not believe any of his visions occurred. He is making these up to give himself more authority. Paul learned his starting beliefs from others and then started creating his own beliefs and claiming that he received them from the risen Christ that he claims to have met in a vision. You just recently stated that Paul gets caught in exaggerations (some would call lying):

    For example, Paul, in his letter to the Romans (earlier than Acts), says that the gospel has been preached “to all the world” (1:18). That of course is completely impossible. By that time it had not been preached to every province of the Roman empire, let alone every city, let alone anywhere else.

    I do not think we can present Paul in a nutshell by using his words for the entire nut.

    • Avatar
      jhague  May 16, 2016

      Can we say that Paul certainly learned about Christianity from Christians before him?
      But he then claims this:

      For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. Galatians 1:11-12 (NRSV)

      Is this an exaggeration or a lie to give himself authority from God (or Christ) that he does not have? (Even if we say that he actually had a revelation, he still was still taught by other Christians)

      • Avatar
        GregAnderson  May 29, 2016

        Scholars believe that some of Paul’s writings include quotes from even earlier Christian writings and/or traditions. For example, Philippians 2:5-11. If this is true, then Paul certainly learned something about Christianity from some other humans. 😉

  6. Greg Matthews
    Greg Matthews  May 13, 2016

    Thanks for the summary of what the resurrection meant. I’ve never seen it so succinctly put. In your other question about Paul you listed the areas he visited and said “Arabia”. Does this mean Arabia Petraea as the Romans called it ? When looking at the places Paul says he visited it makes more sense geographically if Arabia is indeed the area where Petra is and not the much further south Saudi Arabia.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2016

      Yes, I absolutely don’t think that Paul went into what we call Saudi Arabia.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  May 15, 2016

      This can be technically confusing. The words Arab and Arabia were more of a description of a people who lived in a certain environment rather than a national or ethic designation. The word Arab comes from the western Semitic word for an arid environment — what we would call a desert, but, technically speaking, a “desert” is a place with few if any human inhabitants, where an arid environment is simply one with very little water, vegetation, etc. For example, the Hebrew word for a desert, meaning an arid, dry place is “araba”, which is where they get the name for Arabs as a collection of peoples who live in arid climates, while the Hebrew for a desert, meaning a place with few if any human inhabitants, is “midbar”, which you’ll usually see translated as “wilderness” in English Bibles (as in the Hebrew name for the Book of Numbers, B’Midbar, “In the Wilderness”), probably so as to distinguish it from the arid type of desert. Anyway, when Paul or any other Jew talks about “Arabs”, they’re often talking about the desert-dwelling Semitic peoples living just southeast of the Dead Sea — what we would call the Nabataeans of Petra. The “Arabs” themselves usually distinguished themselves along tribal lines.

  7. Avatar
    J.J.  May 13, 2016

    Just curious about your thoughts on Mark & Jesus’ death. Why do you think Mark implies Jesus’ death as atonement for sin? Where do you see that mentioned in Mark? There’s basically only 2 refs to the theological meaning of Jesus’ death in Mark (10:45; 14:24), and both times it’s simply stated as a death “for many” (not “for the forgiveness of sins” as in Mt 26:28). Atonement for sins sounds more like Paul’s view than Mark’s. And many scholars (most?) think the veil tearing in Mark is an apocalyptic sign of divine judgment on the temple establishment, the ultimate culmination of the strong temple critique in Mark chaps 11-16. The Markan temple critique can be seen in: temple protest in 11:15-19; cursing fig tree in 11:12-14, 20-25; parable of wicked tenants in 12:1-12; love God & neighbor > sacrifices in temple in 12:32-34; prediction of temple destruction in 13:1-37; reinterpreting Passover seder in 14:22-25; accusations of destroying temple & rebuilding new one in 14:58; 15:29… and ultimately temple veil tearing from top to bottom in 15:38… a divine act in which God breaks into the narrative to act… divine abandonment of the temple. In other words, for the readers of Mark (wherever they were and whenever), when they heard of the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem temple, no worries… God had already left the bldg in 70 CE… and ironically, it looked like Jesus was the one who was abandoned by God and left to die alone (Mk 15:34)… but actually it was the temple that was abandoned and forsaken at that point (Mk 15:38). Thoughts?

    (Btw, sorry for the long comment… not trying to inform you of these matters… just trying to clarify for others who might read this comment and wonder why I said and asked what I did.)

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2016

      Yes, I think Mark 10:45 and 14:24, in conjunction with the tearing of the curtain, are key for understanding Mark’s soteriology. Jesus’ death was “for” others (only for believers possibly?), in that it gave access to God. My sense is that scholars recognize the curtain tearing in *Luke* as divine judgment on the temple; but Mark’s placement of the event is absolutely key (at the nmoment of death and right when the centurion makes his confession).

  8. Avatar
    marcrm68  May 13, 2016

    This is one of the things I never understood about Christianity, why would God require the bloody human sacrifice of his son for my salvation?!… I’ve read that the Jews required blood for atonement, and that the story of Jesus’s sacrifice freed the Jews from the Temple, as the center of their faith.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2016

      The ancient world was infused with notions of sacrifice. For most ancient persons, sacrifice was simply and unquestionably (and unquestioned) a part of what it meant to worship God/the gods. How things have changed.

      • Avatar
        marcrm68  May 15, 2016

        But yet modern Christians embrace this notion… It’s like they have been brainwashed. Ask a Christian if they believe in human sacrifice, the answer is no… Ask if Jesus died on the cross to redeem their sins, and the answer is absolutely… very strange…

        • Avatar
          ftbond  April 17, 2017

          I think you’re conflating a few things here. But, to be brief, while Jesus’ death *can be seen metaphorically* as a sacrifice – as a means by which one might relate to it (in an ancient culture) – the fact of the matter is that Jesus’ death was not at all a “human sacrifice”, as performed ritualistically by, say, the Aztecs (for example). So, while one may metaphorically understand that Jesus (in his death) *served* as a “sacrifice”, it should *only* be understood in that light. We do the exact same thing in modern culture: “American soldiers continue to put themselves on the line to defend our freedom, and so many have paid the ultimate sacrifice”; “…and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom” (and, I could add numerous other “sacrifice” quotes). But, do we “embrace this notion” of “human sacrifice” in modern culture? No, of course not. I’d say “get real”….

  9. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 13, 2016

    So strange…I’d always thought the “common sense” view (if one believed at all) was that he’d necessarily had *the most public, indisputable kind of death*, so no one could doubt that his resurrection was a miracle. And the *resurrection* was important because it proved he was divine, and therefore, his teachings had to be heeded!

    I wonder whether some ordinary, lay Christians, even in those early years, may have understood it the way I did?

  10. Avatar
    Rich Griese  May 14, 2016

    Two Paul books I enjoyed and recommend;

    The Amazing Colossal Apostle, by Robert M. Price – http://www.amazon.com/dp/156085216X

    Paul and Jesus; How the apostle transformed Christianity, by James D. Tabor – http://www.amazon.com/dp/1439123322


  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 14, 2016

    Terrific questions with terrific answers, I love the technique of summarizing and listing the main points.

  12. Avatar
    seeker_of_truth  May 14, 2016

    Do you believe Luke 23. 34 – “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” – is original to the Gospel of Luke, since as the HarperCollins Study Bible says “The theme of pardonable ignorance appears also in Acts 3.17; 7.60; 13.27; 17.30”, but also that this quote is not in all ancient sources?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2016

      Yes, I think the verse was omitted by scribes who did not like the idea that Jesus asked God to forgive the Jews for his death.

  13. Avatar
    john76  May 14, 2016

    I disagree with William Lane Craig’s idea that we can be sure of multiple attestation on the issues of the crucifixion, empty tomb, and post death appearances of Jesus. Paul said “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures… and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also (1 Cor 15:3-8).” If Mark read Paul, and John read at least one of the synoptics, then there may only be one source (Paul) for all of this.

    I’m wary of the way New Testament scholars liberally posit multiple sources to explain innovations from authors. For instance, you (Ehrman) explain the material unique to Matthew by imagining there was an “M” source that Matthew had access to. In this case, I would say Matthew’s gospel shows itself to be a Judaizing of the gentile gospel of Mark, so there is no reason to think Matthew has an independent source here, let alone that it can be traced back to the historical Jesus. Something similar might be applicable to “Q.” Burton Mack argues for a stratified Q, Q 1 being the earliest. But Q 1 simply reflects sayings that have a common cynical tang, and hence do not need to come from one sage, let alone the historical Jesus.

  14. Avatar
    john76  May 14, 2016

    One other point:

    Luke and Matthew borrowed from Mark. Most scholars posit a “Q” source that was shared by Matthew and Luke (for the material common to them that we don’t find in Mark), although some maintain that Luke borrowed from Matthew (Goodacre and Carrier argue this latter position). Where I raise my eyebrow is when scholars like Ehrman go one step further and posit a myriad of sources every time a gospel author has material unique to them. Ehrman might be right about this, but I don’t think there is any reason to think so. The gospel writers may just have been inventing the material that was unique to them: We have ample evidence with the apocryphal gospels about Jesus and the forged pseudo-Pauline epistles that the writers of that period were more than willing to invent material to suit their purposes, so it is perfectly reasonable to think that this was going on in the canonical Gospels as well.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2016

      Myriad of sources?? As with most scholars (well, every one that I know of), I suggest that Matthew had at least one source for his stories not found in the other Gospels. He *may* have made all his other stories up; but since we know that he took over Mark and Q, there’s nothing implausible (in fact, it’s rather likely) that he had other sources as well. M might be just one source. It might be lots of sources. They might me written or oral. But I think it *is* implausible to think that the only things Matthew ever heard (or read) about Jesus came from Mark or Q! He was a Christian living in a Christian community after all….

      • Avatar
        john76  May 15, 2016

        If these extra sources were readily available to Matthew, why were they not available to Mark or Paul?

        • Avatar
          john76  May 15, 2016

          In response to your (Ehrman’s) new book about memory, I would say a meta-question we should ask before we try to determine whether a pericope reported in a gospel is an instance clear vs. of distorted memory, is if we can determine whether a particular pericope in the Gospels is (I) an instance of historical memory (clear or distorted), or (II) if the Gospel writer was just inventing non historical material for his own purposes? The apocryphal works about Jesus and the forged pseudo Pauline epistles demonstrate conclusively that the writers of that time were more than willing to invent unhistorical material that never happened to suit their theological purposes, so there is no reason to think the canonical Gospel writers were any different. What criteria would you use to distinguish historical from invented material? What if the writers of the canonical gospels were freely inventing material just as the writers of the apocryphal works about Jesus were?

          • Avatar
            john76  May 15, 2016

            I had a grammar mistake above. The first sentence above should read: “In response to your (Ehrman’s) new book about memory, I would say a meta-question we should ask before we try to determine whether a pericope reported in a gospel is an instance of clear vs. distorted memory, is whether we can determine whether a particular pericope in the Gospels is (I) an instance of historical memory (clear or distorted), or (II) if the Gospel writer was just inventing non historical material for his own purposes?”

        • Bart
          Bart  May 16, 2016

          Because most books in the ancient world were never available to most people in most places.

  15. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 15, 2016

    Here’s a question. We know the “official” reason the Romans crucified Jesus was that he’d either really, or allegedly, called himself the future “King of the Jews.” Do most scholars – the open-minded type of scholars – think Pilate actually regarded this particular individual as a threat? Or did he view him as a “nobody,” and *want* to crucify a “nobody” because seeing the decomposing body on a cross would serve as a deterrent to other potential troublemakers? (Was the body on the cross while most of the Passover-week crowds were still in Jerusalem?)

    • Bart
      Bart  May 16, 2016

      No one thinks that Pilate was actually afraid that Jesus would overthrow the Roman government of Judea!

  16. Avatar
    jdubbs  May 16, 2016

    Professor, would you agree with the statement of scholars like Marcus Borg that Jesus died BECAUSE of the sins of the world and not FOR the sins of the world. Scholars like Borg are quite emphatic that the death of Jesus is not a sacrifice in the way that most (i.e. fundamentalist) Christians understand it: Jesus died for our sins and by believing in Jesus we gain eternal life. Rather, Jesus’ death is understood as a WAY to God: That by following the life of Jesus and offering up our suffering to God we walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Thoughts? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 16, 2016

      I’m not sure if you’re asking about my personal belief or about the teaching of the NT? I’ll add this question though to the mailbag because I find it rather interesting! (I didn’t know Marcus argued this)

      • Avatar
        jdubbs  May 16, 2016

        I’m asking from a New Testament perspective, Professor. Oh yeah, big theme in Borg. Best articulated in his book, The Heart of Christianity.

        • Avatar
          jdubbs  May 16, 2016

          Another suggestion for a mailbag: I’d love to hear from you about other scholars that YOU like to read. In my training, I’ve been influenced by predominantly Catholic Scholars: Raymond Brown, Sandra Schneider, John Meier, Dan Harrington, SJ (who was my teacher while in Divinity School), et al, but it’s sometimes difficult to find other people to read who come from other traditions/non-traditions. I stumbled onto your book, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture in graduate school in the 90s and I still think it’s your best book (and I have almost all of them! Although Lost Christianities is a close second!), but it would be interesting to hear of works that have influenced your thinking (outside of the bibliography in your books, of course). It would also give the rest of the community a place to mention other scholars that have influenced their thinking.

          If there’s already a place for this or it’s been discussed, my apologies!

          • Bart
            Bart  May 17, 2016

            OK, I’ll add it to my list of questions!

  17. Factfinder
    Factfinder  April 14, 2017

    Does any know which scholars dispute the 6 books that Paul probably did not write? im having trouble finding the sources of this claim, and am not able to support the argument with a fellow at church. Also, i dont want to just believe it to be true and make all the same mistakes ive been doing my whole life!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2017

      I give extensive discussion of each of the six books, with full bibliography to various scholars, in my book Forgery and Counterforgery.

      • Factfinder
        Factfinder  April 15, 2017

        Thanks Dr. Ehrman! going to get Forgery and read it. – I want to thank you sincerely. your books, lectures, and great courses series have completely changed my understanding of the NT and helped me to think and examine things in a logical and critical manner, after a lifetime of indoctrination

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