How the Bible Actually Works by Peter Enns: a Book Review

For me, this is perhaps one of the best books I have ever read—and I have read a LOT of books!

On page 4, Pete sets the stage by stating that the Bible is not a divine instruction manual or rule book and was not designed to provide unwavering certainty for our faith. Of course, this runs counter to those who believe the Bible is inerrant, though Pete doesn’t actually use the word ‘inerrancy’ anywhere in the book. But he says that we encounter problems in reading the Bible when we harbor a misguided expectation that the Bible is meant to give clear answers.

Pete goes on to list three conspicuous characteristics of the Bible—that it is ancient, ambiguous, and diverse (rather than holy, perfect, and clear). (page 5) This is a very important thought throughout the book.

He then makes a statement that: “The Bible was written by various writers who lived at different times, in different places, and under different circumstances and who wrote for different purposes.” and goes on to say that their “perceptions of God and their world were shaped by who they were and when they lived.” (9)

how the bible actually works

Wisdom

Pete finds the proper approach to the Bible in the word, ‘Wisdom’. And by this he does not mean that the Bible is a book of wisdom or a source of wisdom for us but that wisdom, not consistency, is key to the writing of the Bible and often leads to contradictory statements—like the two back-to-back ones from Proverbs 26:

Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.

And

Answer fools according to their folly or they will be wise in their own eyes.

So which is it? Pete says that “the lesson we learn from these two little verses sums up not only how Proverbs works, but how the Bible as a whole works as a book of wisdom.” (29) “Both of these sayings are wise, and the one we act upon here and now, at this unscripted moment, depends on which fits the current situation best. Reading the situation—not simply the Bible—is what wisdom is about.” (31)

Pete concludes that “the life of faith is the pursuit of wisdom,” and that “What may appear to be the most biblical approach to the life of faith–“Do what the Bible says”–misses how the Bible actually works.” (46; 47)

The Changing Bible

Pete remarks that, “As odd as it might seem, most biblical laws really aren’t that clear.” (53) He then talks about how the laws changed throughout the Pentateuch. Biblical laws are also ancient, ambiguous, and diverse. He states that, “Already for the biblical writers, keeping the laws meant reengaging them when needed. And again, the genius of the laws IS their ambiguity, not their clarity, for their ambiguity is the very thing that allows them to gain new life.” (70)

I think Pete gives us two excellent statements that help us to better understand the nature of the Bible:

The diversity we see in the Bible reflects the inevitably changing circumstances of the biblical writers across the centuries as they grapple with their sacred yet ancient and ambiguous tradition. (76)

And

The Bible isn’t a book that reflects one point of view. It is a collection of books that records a conversation—even a debate—over time. (77)

There is no room here for the Bible as a rule book or as a collection of propositional truths delivered by God. No room for any theory of biblical inerrancy. The Bible is not like that—it is better than that. Pete asks, “if the ancient biblical writers themselves need to make adjustments about how they were hearing God speaking to them, whatever would make us think that we can escape the same process?” (79)

Pete finally makes the big point I was waiting for, “Someone might say, ‘Well, okay, sure they were human, obviously, but the biblical writers were also inspired, directed by God in what to write, and so not simply ordinary human writers.’” But Pete emphasizes that “Any explanation that needs to minimize, cover up, or push these self-evident biblical characteristics aside isn’t really an explanation; it’s propaganda.” (80)

The Tremendous Problem of the Exile Experience

Pete says, “Exile was the trauma of the Old Testament—and we dare not underestimate its impact” (98). The Israelites believed God had promised them their own land, their own king, and the temple. But in 586 BCE all of this was taken away by the Babylonians. One very significant response to this problem was the development of the Old Testament.

A casual reader of the Bible might assume the first five books (the books of Moses) were more or less written by Moses and are the oldest part of the Old Testament followed by the historical books that come just after them; but this is not correct. These books actually were written after the exile, incorporating some earlier material, to explain how the Jews felt about their history and to address the question, “After all this time, is God still with us?” (108)

What is God Like?

When I took systematic theology in Bible College, our textbook devoted considerable space to the ‘attributes of God’–as though we really know these things! It seemed so arrogant to me. Pete, on the other hand, asks what God is like and doesn’t have a conclusive answer—because there is none; he says the Bible sends conflicting messages about what God is like. I agree, just as I also agree when he says that God is ‘the one who sent Jesus’ (120).

He discusses the violence attributed to God in the Old Testament—saying, “Struggling with God’s violence is nothing new for people of faith…and I’m not sure if there is any part of the biblical story that puts the question ‘What is God like?’ before us today with more urgency and discomfort.” (147)

I think Pete delivers a lot of riches as he explores this theme.

There is Much More in this Book

Pete covers the development of the Old Testament and the beginnings of Christianity. I like his observation that some of the most important pieces of biblical literature are personal letters—written over two thousand years ago—by people Pete never met—to people he knew nothing about—in places with which he was not remotely familiar—in a culture he could not hope to grasp.

I particularly like Pete’s discussion of Wisdom at creation in Proverbs 8 and the New Testament (40; 203) and his treatment of Paul’s supposedly devastating condemnation of homosexuality in Romans 1 beginning on page 266.

One more relevant quote: “Using Bible verses to end discussions on difficult and complex issues serves no one and fundamentally misses the dimension of wisdom that is at work anytime we open the Bible anywhere and read it.” (268)

This book was a real joy to read.

Who Will Like, or Dislike, this Book?

I think this book will be very useful for fundamentalists/evangelicals who question what they have been taught about the Bible, as well as those well along their journeys away from inerrancy. I suggest this as an excellent book to share with those who are questioning. It is wide-reaching but very connected, easy to read and understand, and represents excellent biblical scholarship.

There will certainly be other fundamentalists/evangelicals who will vehemently reject this book.

Jesus without Baggage exists to assist and support those questioning beliefs they have been taught in fundamentalist, traditional evangelical, and other groups. If you know someone who might find Jesus without Baggage helpful, feel free to send them the introductory page: About Jesus without Baggage.

Articles in this series:
Belief in Biblical Inerrancy Must be the Second Most Damaging, Misguided Christian Belief of All
Why Do Inerrantists Think the Bible is Inerrant Anyway?
How the Bible Actually Works by Peter Enns: a Book Review
Did Jesus Confirm the Inerrancy and Historicity of the Old Testament?

See also:
Books and Resources on Inerrancy

***

This entry was posted in authority, Bible, book or movie review, evangelicalism, fundamentalism, God, inerrancy, Old Testament and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to How the Bible Actually Works by Peter Enns: a Book Review

  1. George says:

    These are the exact struggles I am wrestling with for a few years now. This article helps a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      George, I am so glad the article was helpful to you! If you have other issues you are dealing with, feel free to discuss them here if you wish.

      Like

  2. tonycutty says:

    What a great review, Tim. Thanks for doing it. Book reviews are something I have tried only once, and I don’t think I’m very good at them. (Hated them at school!)

    For this book, sadly, the main thing is that it takes a couple of months to get hold of in this country, and there is no Kindle version. Gutted…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. carl says:

    I do have my doubts that fundamentalist/Evangelicals will even read this book or any others that question the Bible. These kinds of books are like preaching to the choir. I hope I’m wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “..the Bible is not a divine instruction manual or rule book and was not designed to provide unwavering certainty for our faith.”?
    Really, according as his divine power, has given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the ‘knowledge’ of him that has called us to glory and virtue, which such divine instruction brings said faith, by hearing it. 2 Peter 1:3 and Romans 10:17.
    There is no contradiction in Proverbs 26:4,5 as
    Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Means just that, if you respond to a fool, as a fool (accordingly), you will be a fool by such futility. Yet the second go around is instructions as to how to answer, showing the fool his “own conceit”, (or boasting, of a victory which is not there, nor ever will be) so that his foolishness will not go unchallenged, encouraging him to remain wise in his own eyes and possibly gives credibility to his folly in the eyes of others.
    The “most biblical approach to the life of faith–“Do what the Bible says” ” is, according to James, what it is about, James 1:22.
    You can accuse me of quoting the bible to defend the Bible, yet what is Pete using; that it is ancient, ambiguous, and diverse? Just shows how amazing God was to use so many people to tell his story (history), one that transcends language, culture, and time. Sure the Bible is a diverse collection of literature, yet it contains a unified message, that’s fully human and fully divine—fully inspired by his Spirit and fully a product of the world in which it was written.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Thomas, thanks for sharing your thoughts on the book review.

      Like

    • Interestingly, Thomas, the verses you mentioned (2 Peter 1:3 and Romans 10:17) do not mention the Bible or Scriptures at all. I don’t really think they are applicable to this topic. As for the Proverbs topic, the verses literally say opposite things. What Peter Enns is saying is exactly what you are trying to say: It takes wisdom to apply them when a direct, blunt reading shows a contradiction.

      Liked by 1 person

      • 2 Peter 1:3 speaks of the, “knowledge of him” which comes through the scripture’s. Romans 10:17 speaks of the word of God, which is the Bible scripture.
        I see your point, as “a direct, blunt reading shows a contradiction”. True, one needs wisdom, otherwise, only (seemingly) contradiction.

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        • Thomas, if you will notice, there is a huge presupposition that you are inserting into that verse. You are assuming that knowledge of God comes only from the Scriptures, which is not something that the Scriptures ever say. In fact, they say the opposite when Paul says that nature itself teaches us about God. Keep in mind, also, that the Bible never, ever calls Scripture “the word of God”. Jesus is Word (logos) of God. That is a huge and very important distinction, especially in this topic.

          Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Well said, Prog.

            Like

          • Scripture is the Word of God, as that selfsame Apostle speaks to the Thessalonians: saying, “you received the Word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it, not as the word of men but as what it really is, the Word of God,” I Thess. 2:13
            Here is a Jesus speaking of the “word of God’ and “Scripture” in the same sentence, “If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken;” John 10:35

            if Jesus identifies the Scriptures as God’s Word, why are we so squeamish about following suit? It is through the testimony of the Word of God written, that we recognize Jesus as the Word of God Incarnate, as Jesus said; “they are they which testify of me”. John 5:39.

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          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Thomas, you mention: “Jesus speaking of the “word of God’ and “Scripture” in the same sentence, “If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken;” John 10:35” I have written about this passage, with will be published later, but I would like to share my response to it with you as well:

            Tim wrote:

            Many inerrantists point out that Jesus said that ‘Scripture cannot be broken.’ Wow! That sounds pretty conclusive—until you look at the statement more closely. It occurs in John 10:

            **the scripture cannot be broken (KJV)

            But I wonder how many people using this ‘proof’ actually read the context of the statement. A group of Jewish religious leaders are preparing to stone Jesus, and Jesus asks why.

            **“We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”

            **Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’ If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?

            The reference is to Psalm 82:

            **God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the “gods”: “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked?…“I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler.”

            Jesus was messing with his accusers! I am sure they did not believe there was an ‘assembly of gods’ just as I suspect inerrantists do not believe there is an assembly of gods. Jesus’ statement that ‘scripture cannot be broken’ reflects the view of his accusers—not his own view. I think the context rules out this passage as a ‘proof’ of inerrancy.

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          • Yeah, those he was talking to were the chosen people of God, as they were privileged above all people, have been given the oracles of God
            It also interesting that Jesus said; “Many good works have I showed you from my Father; for which of those works do you stone me? “ “If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not.” Verse 32 and 37.
            As this is the exact thing the Psalmist was saying. They are gods to other men, but he is GOD to them. He merely lends them his name, and this is their authority for acting as judges, but they must take care that they do not misuse the power entrusted to them, for the Judge of judges is in session among them (yet they knew him not, standing right in front of them). As they did none of the things God wants;“ Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked.” Yes, he messed with them, as you ‘well said’, Jesus used this scripture to “mess with his accusers” . but the trouble is, they “messed with him”! They had him crucified . the very one who God the Father sent to show us what he wanted, Matthew 5:28, a perfect example, we are to follow, 1 Peter 2:21,22.
            But I only shared it to show both the “word of God” and “scripture” are in the same sentence in this amazing scripture Jesus used. But, as to whether it is errant or inerrant, is yours to judge, as they judged Jesus, who is the word in the flesh, John 1:14, and they missed it!

            Liked by 1 person

    • Chas says:

      Thomas, if you wish to examine a contradiction, try carefully putting side-by-side the two accounts of the occurrences around the birth of Jesus in Luke and Matthew. Luke says Gabriel came to Mary in Nazareth, and that she and Joseph went back to their own town of Nazareth, directly from Jerusalem, about 41 days (8 days for circumcision + 33 days of purification) after Jesus was born, but says nothing of their going to Egypt and returning,(which they would have had time to do). However, Matthew says that they went to Egypt, directly from Bethlehem, and stayed there for some time, then returned, but did not go to Judea, so they could not have gone to Jerusalem in Judea, or the temple either. Matthew seemed to imply that they had not lived in Nazareth before the birth, so the two versions cannot be reconciled.

      Liked by 1 person

      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Good points, Chas.

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      • So many never really get the point of why there are seemingly discrepancies. They think the point is that we can then come away from the Bible and say, “So, it’s full of contradictions!”, but a harmony of the Gospels is still possible— if one see’s it in view of the light, in which each are looking at it. Here is “Mystery of the Manger” which can shed light on what, seems as discrepancy.
        https://discoveryseries.org/courses/mystery-of-the-manger/lessons/shepherds-and-wise-men-egypt-and-nazareth/
        It is interesting that he shows a “time line” out the connection of wealth, with the subject matter of Joseph and Mary offering of two turtle doves for Mary’s purification, at Jerusalem, signifying their being poor. As, they had not yet been visited by the Magi with gold, and two very valuable commodities of frankincense and myrrh, indicating they first went to Jerusalem, then back to Bethlehem, only 5 miles away, to meet with the Magi, later, before fleeing to Egypt..

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        • Chas says:

          Thomas, you have missed the point, you cannot explain away the discrepancy between the two accounts. If there is even one contradiction in the bible, it cannot be the Word of God, since God is perfect.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Chas says:

          Thomas, Luke says that they went back to Nazareth, from Jerusalem, about 41 days after the birth, so they could not have gone to Egypt, they did not have time to do so, and Luke says that they were from Nazareth, so why would they go back to Bethlehem? How would they know that the Magi were coming? Still, we can be sure that those who will not believe will grasp at any straws to try to escape.

          Liked by 1 person

          • “When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.” Luke 1:39.
            Luke doesn’t say that the Family returned immediately to Nazareth, just that they did return. The “41 days after the birth” was the time required by the law of the Lord for Mary to bring the offering. But a lot of things happened between “everything required by the Law of the Lord” and “returned to Nazareth”, things Luke did not mention!
            The real question is as to the exact period at which these things could have taken place which Matthew has linked on to his narrative; to wit, the departure of the family into Egypt, and their return from it after Herod’s death, and their residence at that time in the town of Nazareth, the very place to which Luke tells us that they eventually went back to, .

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          • https://enduringword.com/ebooks/Harmony-of-the-Gospels-Robertson.pdf
            This is a “Harmony of the Gospels” and it lines up the two accounts chronologically to show what Luke left out. Go to page 13 (61 of 360) and the heading; THE CHILD BROUGHT FROM EGYPT TO NAZARETH, at the top. It would be best to get a copy of the “Harmony of the Gospels” (inexpensive and great to have) to see how they are in harmony with each other, as each writer writes a different slant as to their view. For instance, Luke was the only one that spoke of Jesus’ swaddling cloth’s (a very importance wrapping for a new born) as only a Doctor would note such.
            Interestingly, Matthew use to be a Tax collector. And being a tax collector required constant upkeep of records and accurate relaying of information, which he certainly did, more than the others.

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          • Chas says:

            Thomas, all the things that you are bringing in are pure conjecture. I prefer to keep to the facts as we have them, which is only the words in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. Any other words are like the inventions of a guilty person being tried in a court, attempting to deceive the jury in his favour.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Yet there is “sufficient evidence” for said conjecture, that the Gospels show that Luke and Matthew were talking about the same thing, as only difference is one talked more than the other, As I remember my professor said, if they (all four) gave the same detail of Jesus life, it would be as John said; “I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” John 21:25. The bible is thick enough, and you learn to appreciate that in school, right Tim?

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          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Thomas, it appears you are responding to a comment by Chas, but you also mention my name at the end. So I will share that I agree substantially with Chas. I don’t think the accounts in Matthew and Luke can be harmonized (as we do with every nativity scene and program). In fact, I am quite sure the trip to Egypt never happened.

            In a number of places in the gospels the writers used a method called Midrash, a popular Jewish technique involving creative use of Old Testament passages. It seems that the entire flight to Egypt and return were written in order to draw in an OT passage (Hosea 11) that had nothing to do with Jesus: “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ ”

            This is Midrash–not history.

            Like

          • It may “appear” that way to you, but here it is again; “The bible is thick enough, and you learn to appreciate that in school, right Tim?” Meaning, while in Bible school (as we both were), reading assignments were long and laborious (at least to me) and I often thought, how wonderful all four writers of the Gospels did not write too much. But hay, thats just me. But no, I never insinuated that you whole heartedly agreed with me, as I only figure you would agree that the bible is a bunch of reading. Sorry if I brought you any discomfort.
            No, this is not midrash, a technique involving creative use of Old Testament passages, it is history, his story.
            What Matthew then is saying is this: God first “called His son out of Egypt”. That was Israel. This we find in Hosea 11:1. But in the second verse of that same chapter, the prophet says, “[As] they called them, so they went from them: they sacrificed unto Baalim, and burned incense to graven images.” They were called out of Egypt, but as they called them, so they went from them. They served Baalim and the graven images instead of the true God. In short: imperfection.
            Then Matthew continues with saying that, in Jesus this history is perfected. The Israelite’s were called out of Egypt, but were imperfect, in that they served Baalim. But Jesus was called out of Egypt, and was perfect in His obedience towards God. The Israelite’s were the “sons of God”. But Jesus perfected this, being the “Son of God”. For Jesus was the Son of God in a more perfect sense, namely directly born from the Spirit.
            In short: What was done imperfect in the Israelite’s, was perfected in Jesus.
            No, this is not midrash, a technique involving creative use of Old Testament passages, it is history, his story. As the whole old testament has to do with Jesus. Matthew is not changing a history into a prophecy, but simply quoting the history of the Jew’s exit out of Egypt, and says that it is “fulfilled” in Jesus Christ.
            This all happened in Christ, who is Himself the new Israel, as Jesus repeats the history of Israel in His own person. He fulfills Hosea’s text because He is the true, faithful Son of God who perfectly lives out the calling, first given to old covenant Israel.

            Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Thomas, you did not bring me any discomfort. I understand your objection, and Matthew might have had in mind some of the themes from Hosea that you mention or similar ones. But this is still Midrash; I am pretty sure Jesus’s family did not go to Egypt.

            Like

      • Sure, but thing is, if Jesus’ family did not go to Egypt, then Matthew was lying. If he lied here were else did he lie? Seven things the Lord hates, yes, and one of them is a lying tongue, Proverbs 6:16,17. Why would a Disciple of truth lie, aren’t they the guardians of truth? As he chose them for such and only one of them was a devil, John 6:70.

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Thomas, it might seem like lying to you, but to the people of his time Matthew was just doing a Midrash on Hosea. Did Mark Twain lie when he wrote Huckleberry Finn? There are many genres in the Bible, and they are not lies just because they are not literally true.

          Like

  5. Justin Redden says:

    What is your opinion of astrotheology and the bible actually being compiled and edited primarily to encode esoteric truths about the Creator and the meaning of our lives here -based on the movements of the sun, moon, and stars?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I am planning to buy a copy soon. I really like Pete’s blogs on various subjects, and I suspect that this book could end up being a go-to that I will recommend to people that are interested in the subject. It’s wonderful to have a book that is simply and clearly written like this.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. “Questioning” is exactly what I am, and have always been. This seems like the perfect book to accompany my foray back into studying the bible. I’m not sure about my beliefs, but I think it would be interesting to study the Bible as a book of wisdom and look at it’s historical context. I grew up Pentecostal and evangelical, and I just couldn’t stomach the televangelists anymore, or other people telling me how to study it in some ways and “don’t worry your little head about it” in others.
    I’m gonna have to check this book out.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. theotherlestrangegirl says:

    I was recently in the presence of someone who encouraged me to “live biblically in every area of my life.” I don’t even know what that means. Should we go back to the time when married men could legally purchase young boys from other nations as sex slaves (which Paul detested)? Technically, that’s biblical.

    Of course, when you make this argument to an evangelical/fundamentalist type, they act like you’re crazy for taking what they sad so literally (except, any other time, they want you to take everything literally). It’s a never-ending merry-go-round.

    Though I have read a lot lately, it’s not been anything about the Bible or religion. However, I have been enjoying watching a lot of Tim Hawkins content–he’s a Christian comedian, and he’s hysterical. He has a short little video on YouTube called My Favorite Bible Verse, which is perhaps the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in reference to the Bible. I personally believe that God has a sense of humor and, if I didn’t know any better, I would definitely think God was pranking Tim.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Strange Girl, I remember Tim Hawkins from years ago. I think I even saw him live once. So I had to check out his Favorite Bible Verse video (and a few others). He is a real hoot!

      I agree that ‘living biblically’ is a very broad, imprecise term, but I am not interested in doing so in the ways they DO mean. I would rather follow Jesus.

      Like

    • Dennis Wade says:

      theotherlestrangegirl , thank you for mentioning Tim Hawkins. I hadn’t heard of him, so i had to go watch the mentioned video. Haven’t laughed that hard in a while!
      Humor HAS to be an essential part of God’s nature, and it definitely has healing power!
      …… And as for “living biblically”, if there was a hell, I can well imagine it being a place where everyone was required to live as if the Bible really was literally true.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Did Jesus Confirm the Inerrancy and Historicity of the Old Testament? | Jesus Without Baggage

  10. Pingback: Why Do Inerrantists Think the Bible is Inerrant Anyway? | Jesus Without Baggage

  11. Pingback: Belief in Biblical Inerrancy Must be the Second Most Damaging, Misguided Christian Belief of All | Jesus Without Baggage

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