Perfecting God’s “Perfect” Law?

August 6, 2007 at 10:25 am 23 comments

jesus_law.jpgEvery so often I am simply astonished by how theologically minded individuals can perform radical surgery on the Bible to cop out of adherence to moral depravities. What further amuses me is the blatantly ignorant “there are no Biblical contradictions” statement. Biblical depravity and contradiction always rears its head whenever criticism of the Old Testament is at hand. Defenders of Biblical integrity then argue that we cannot know God’s plan and so examples of child sacrifice and genocide may be brushed aside – sometimes God just needs to get his hands dirty to get the job done (and because those Egyptians and Hittites were going to sheol anyway). But do these sweeping apologetic brushes do for the law what they can do for their god’s character?

Any Biblical scholar, Christian or otherwise, knows that the Jewish religion is built on a strictly adhered to and enforced law of God, the Mitzvah: the 613 commands found in the Torah. This law is somewhat problematic for contemporary Biblical literalists for several reasons, the most obvious being that it just isn’t cool to put people to death for everything anymore. For example, 1 of the 613 commands, found in the famous ten commandments no less, is to “remember the Sabbath” (Ex. 20:8-9) – this included foreigners (so no “the law was only for the Jews” excuse here). Adventurous Bible enthusiasts that read beyond the commandments are rewarded with finding out the punishment for failure to comply: “…you are to observe the sabbath…. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death…whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people… whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall surely be put to death” (Ex.31:14-15).

The great thing about the example of the Sabbath is that Jesus came along and made fools of the law-abiding Pharisees specifically concerning that subject. Of course we recognize that Jesus did not dismiss the law, but merely re-interpreted it – Matthew 5:17-20 is quite clear on that. It would, however, take the writings of a self-appointed apostle of Christ to diminish the law in light of the messianic figure’s death. But how does Paul’s lawlessness jive with explicit statements in the Old Testament concerning such a perspective? Paul proclaims, “All things are lawful; but not all things are expedient. All things are lawful; but not all things edify” (1 Cor. 10:23). Yet in the Old Testament, David cries out, “The Law of the LORD is PERFECT…” (Ps. 19:7). Isaiah agrees, “…the Word of our God will stand FOREVER” (Is. 40:8), which is later cited in 1 Peter 1:25 (of course, not one of the Pauline letters).

How does someone critique or even fulfill something that is already perfect? Perfection, by definition, is unchanging; perfection is as good as anything can possibly be. The law is perfect. The Bible says so. Or perhaps David had a little too much wine. The law, according to the Christian “re-interpretation” or “fulfillment,” was obviously not perfect. If it was perfect, there would have been no need for God to send… himself… or his son… or both… to die. That is, unless, you’re drinking the kool-aid. Theologians, professional and amateur alike, it appears, are answerable only to the conclusion already in place, not to the result of critical evaluation; only a theologian could explain how a perfect entity can be even more perfect by, in all practicality, reversing itself.

-The Apostate

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23 Comments Add your own

  • 1. The de-Convert  |  August 7, 2007 at 1:06 am

    TA,

    It would, however, take the writings of a self-appointed apostle of Christ to diminish the law in light of the messianic figure’s death. But how does Paul’s lawlessness jive with explicit statements in the Old Testament concerning such a perspective?

    Interesting perspective. What do you think prompted Paul, a self-proclaimed Pharisee, to turn against the law? In some ways, I wonder if he didn’t have the same issues I have with the O.T. and set out to re-interpret it.

    BTW, are you a Paul fan? I don’t get the feeling that you are.

    Paul

  • 2. walkthewok  |  August 7, 2007 at 1:24 am

    Romans 3:23
    “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”

    Romans 6:23
    “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

    John 3:16
    “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

    Thinking Ape: “If it was perfect, there would have been no need for God to send… himself… or his son… or both… to die.”

    The law, according to the Bible, is perfect. And according to the people who follow Christ, the Christians, the Bible is perfect. Actually, it’s because God’s law is perfect that God would have to send His Son to die for us, because we CANNOT uphold His perfect law and need something else to atone for our sins because all people “fall short” of God’s glory.

    Again, in the upcoming paragraph, I will quote an answer from another site that I have found, a verbatim copy of that quote. This time, the answer reflects my knowledge and understanding of the Bible, and I agree with the quote that I am about to put in this comment.

    Again, whether or not you agree with it is up to you, but here is an answer from a Christian to your question “How does someone critique or even fulfill something that is already perfect?” I answer to sincerely answer your question, if you sincerely seek an answer to that question which you asked.

    QUOTE: “The purpose of the law was to demonstrate the complete inability of Man to uphold God’s standard conveyed therein. God sent His Son, Jesus Christ to earth for the sole purpose of redeeming sinful man. The first few chapters of the book of Romans make this clear. Through the Apostle Paul’s writings (New Testament Book of Romans) we understand that obeying the law is of no benefit and only faith in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ whom God raised from the dead can reconcile us to God (restore the fellowship lost with God since Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden). The Jews in the Old Testament are justified by their faith that was expressed through obedience to the law. Although none of them were able to keep the whole law, God provided for a system of atoning animal sacrifices. Those sacrifices were a picture of the True Sacrifice that was made on our behalf when Jesus Christ willingly gave His life in our place on the cross. When Christ was crucified, He fulfilled the Law and that is the Promise that is referred to in the Bible. It is true that Christ did not come to do away with the law as such, but he fulfilled the requirement of keeping the law. Again that is very clear in Romans and it is also explained by Paul that we either try to justify ourselves by keeping the law – this is impossible and demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of God’s Plan to redeem sinful men. The alternative is to understand that following the fulfillment of the law exhibited in the death of Christ, we now are to live by grace and should therefore place our faith in what Christ has done on the cross. I’m a little short on time, but want you to digest this much and give me a follow-up questions. This is extremely important and I want to explain what the Bible makes so very clear – we must place our faith in the work of Christ and nothing else as our attempts to achieve standing with God by obeying the Old Testament Laws achieve nothing.”

    Source: http://en.allexperts.com/q/Bible-Studies-1654/Law-forever-1.htm

  • 3. Thinking Ape  |  August 7, 2007 at 1:36 am

    Hey Paul, I was starting to feel like there was nothing controversial enough to stir up any comments in this one.

    What do you think prompted Paul, a self-proclaimed Pharisee, to turn against the law?

    One thing that we know about Paul is that he was a great rhetorician, and probably a great orator. Paul lived in a time where whole treatises were made on rhetoric and its power (e.g. Plato’s Gorgias several hundred years earlier). I don’t doubt that Paul was a Pharisee, but I often wonder how accurate a picture Paul paints of himself – do you remember that evangelical awhile back who proclaimed that he had been a devil-worshiper but was caught as a fraud? I’m not saying Paul did something so extreme, but do we really know whether Paul had such a radical conversion?

    But assuming that Paul did have a radical conversion, there are many reasons that he would have “turned against the law” – one simply being a sign of the times (Burton Mack’s “Who Wrote the New Testament focuses quite a bit on that). I am working a lot on Paul right now I will probably post something on that question, since it is quite an important one.

    In some ways, I wonder if he didn’t have the same issues I have with the O.T. and set out to re-interpret it.

    Paul’s views certainly didn’t come out of a vacuum, but we have to be careful if we want to place our modern issues with the OT on ancient eyes. Again, I have problems with Paul’s conversion experience, which taints my view of how Paul probably viewed the Old Testament.

    BTW, are you a Paul fan? I don’t get the feeling that you are.

    I don’t really know how to answer this. I find it troublesome that many Chrisitans equate Paul’s words with Jesus, and in turn the apostles – I would not consider Paul a genuine apostle of Jesus. I believe Paul’s message was more radical than Jesus’, but not necessarily compatible or truthful. Christianity without Paul probably would not have survived, but we would have something similar instead, who knows, maybe we would all be worshiping Sol or Mithra.

  • 4. Heather  |  August 7, 2007 at 5:15 am

    The law is perfect. The Bible says so. Or perhaps David had a little too much wine. The law, according to the Christian “re-interpretation” or “fulfillment,” was obviously not perfect.

    My understanding is that conservative Christianity treats the Ten Commandments as the law that God uses to judge everyone by, and this is the same law that was used to show how everyone can’t live up to it.

    Except is that how Paul used the concept of ‘law?’ After all, he was a Pharisee and to them, the law was those 613 commandments, and some of those commandments include elements like “to set free a parent bird when taking a nest” or “to decapite the heifer as commanded.”

    Those are perfect standards that people are to live up to, and failure to live up to those make people a sinner?

    If Paul was only referring to the 10 commandments, then Paul seems to be re-defining what “the law” means.

  • 5. The de-Convert  |  August 7, 2007 at 9:54 am

    TA,

    It’s all about the controversy of the title :)

    Is this close to what you’re saying probably happened in the birth of Christianity:

    1) Jesus lived and died
    2) Small sect of Jews (Peter, James, etc.) are followers
    3) Paul hi-jacked the budding beliefs of this new sect and created “Christianity.”
    4) Gospels are written taking the stories of Jesus and applying Paul’s mysticism
    5) The initial followers of Jesus clashed with Paul but of course the history of that clash is being told by a disciple of Paul so we only get that perspective.

    Am I on the right track?

    Do you think the Gospel of James sums up the beliefs of the original sect? I recently re-read this and it contained no mention of Paul’s version of Jesus.

    Paul

  • 6. Chris Thomas  |  August 7, 2007 at 12:00 pm

    What walkthewok said…

    The law was/is perfect. It served the purpose to prove that man is not.

  • 7. The de-Convert  |  August 7, 2007 at 2:18 pm

    wtw/chris,

    Please browse these few “laws” and let me know how they were/are perfect.

    http://literalbible.blogspot.com/search/label/God%27s%20Laws?max-results=100

    Thanks,
    Paul

  • 8. tribalchurch  |  August 7, 2007 at 6:58 pm

    I just like the picture of the plastic Jesus, the clouds, and that big floating book. Where the heck did you get that one? It’s fabulous!

  • 9. Thinking Ape  |  August 7, 2007 at 8:23 pm

    The de-Convert,

    Is this close to what you’re saying probably happened in the birth of Christianity:
    1) Jesus lived and died
    2) Small sect of Jews (Peter, James, etc.) are followers
    3) Paul hi-jacked the budding beliefs of this new sect and created “Christianity.”
    4) Gospels are written taking the stories of Jesus and applying Paul’s mysticism
    5) The initial followers of Jesus clashed with Paul but of course the history of that clash is being told by a disciple of Paul so we only get that perspective.

    More or less, yes. I wouldn’t say that Paul “hi-jacked” the beliefs, because of its negative connotation. What Paul did was certainly within the norm of the time he lived in (similar to how attributing a letter in someone else’s name was a compliment, not plagiarism). I would also say that Paul emphasizes only one of several Jesus movements, and to know which one, if any, more accurately follows the original teachings is impossible.

    Quite honestly, the way in which the gospel stories portray Jesus’ disciples makes me suspicious – painting the original disciples basically as fools (common also in Buddhist narratives) discredits any original founders.

    Do you think the Gospel of James sums up the beliefs of the original sect? I recently re-read this and it contained no mention of Paul’s version of Jesus.

    Like I said, I think it is impossible to decipher what was “original.” I think it is obvious that the EPISTLE of James offers something that is much closer to the original, but it is still reactionary and has developments that have already moved Jesus into something that he probably wasn’t. As for the Gospel (aka. Infancy Gospel) of James, it is a very late document and contains odd Mithraic elements. The Apocryphon of James is again fairly late and thoroughly gnostic and suffers the same accuracy issues as the Gospel of Thomas since it is mainly sayings with little narrative. Since the Gnostics concentrated on knowledge, there is usually little mention of miracles, but this doesn’t mean they didn’t believe Jesus did them. I don’t think any Jesus group saw their founder as another Socrates, but the physical death and physical resurrection was definitely a Pauline invention.

  • 10. Thinking Ape  |  August 7, 2007 at 8:39 pm

    walkthewok cited,

    The purpose of the law was to demonstrate the complete inability of Man to uphold God’s standard conveyed therein.

    This is such a bastardization of Judaism. It is little wonder that Christians have been the biggest persecutors of Jews throughout the last two thousand years. So God sends a law knowing that the people he created can not uphold it – if Moses heard this I think he would have smashed the Commandments again.

    Walkthewok, when you read that paragraph you quoted, does it not appear to you that we are nothing more than god’s playthings? He likes to dangle fruit we cannot eat in front of us (e.g. Adam and Eve), he gives us laws he knows we cannot keep only to tell us we don’t have to follow them a thousand years later (Exodus, Romans), he tells people to kill their kids to test their faith (e.g. Abraham), he allows Lucifer to call war on one mortal man to win a bet (e.g. Job), and then decides to essentially disappear for two thousand years, leaving humanity to guess what the @%!$ he was thinking and call it “faith.” Personally, this sounds more like some hybrid of Zeus and Loki than an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient God.

  • 11. walkthewok  |  August 7, 2007 at 10:16 pm

    QUESTION: “wtw/chris,

    Please browse these few “laws” and let me know how they were/are perfect.

    http://literalbible.blogspot.com/search/label/God%27s%20Laws?max-results=100

    Thanks,
    Paul”

    ANSWER:
    Exodus 20:20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” 21The people remained at a distance…

    The above listed verses follow immediately after the very first law written on the link you provided, and also the ten commandments.

    The following is a quote from another website, and again these words are NOT mine, but I am providing them as a possible answer to your question.

    /QUOTE

    What we must understand is this: God is Holy and we can never approach Him based on our own efforts. The Scriptures teach that “all men are like grass” (1 Pet. 1:24) and “God is a consuming fire!” (Heb. 12:29) We all know what happens to grass that happens to be in the path of a wild fire!

    In the beginning of our lesson today, we heard how the Israelites said to Moses, “Everything that the Lord has said we will do.” They said that because they did not recognize the holiness of God. They somehow thought that they could please God through their own efforts. However, after God had appeared to them on Mount Sinai, their thoughts changed drastically! When the Israelites witnessed the thunder, the lightning and the mountain erupting with smoke and heard the voice of the Lord echoing out to them with ten holy commandments, “they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die!'”

    Thus the people of Israel began to recognize God’s absolute holiness and their utter inability to approach Him. At the base of Mount Sinai they became aware of the truth of Scripture: “All men are like grass” and “God is a consuming fire!” (1 Pet. 1:24; Heb. 12:29) In the presence of God the Holy One, could the Israelites honestly say, “No problem! Everything the Lord has said we will do!”? No, they could not! Now the Israelites recognized that they had a problem; a very serious problem! They sensed the holiness of God and the strictness of His commandments; they sensed their own unholiness and inability to keep God’s perfect law. They felt like dry grass in the path of a wild fire!

    /END QUOTE

    Source: http://injil.org/TWOR/36.html

  • 12. Smj  |  August 8, 2007 at 12:16 am

    Hmmm… ?? I guess I’m probably simplifying things… but, that sounded like basically, you are saying the answer is we shouldn’t ask?? don’t try to understand? or we might be burnt up like dry grass by God?? Sounds reasonable. NOT!

  • 13. Thinking Ape  |  August 8, 2007 at 4:12 am

    walkthewok, why the copy and pasting? All that glue cannot be good for your health.

  • 14. Heather  |  August 8, 2007 at 5:11 am

    They sensed the holiness of God and the strictness of His commandments; they sensed their own unholiness and inability to keep God’s perfect law

    A perfect law, such as giving the fleece to the priest? Or to take the four kinds of branches of trees? To make the non-Hebrew slave serve forever?

    Or even other commandments, such as whoever curses one’s parent shall be put to death.

    Nothing about these laws reveals any sort of holiness or perfection.

    And again — where does it say that the Ten Commandments were the absolute “law”?

  • 15. joshm  |  August 8, 2007 at 12:01 pm

    I would like to point out two passages in the Gospels that may help with this issue. The first is the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). This passage provides a great look at the ethics of Jesus. As you pointed out, Thinking Ape, Jesus tells his listeners he is fulfilling the law and not abolishing it. But as one reads these three chapters, one finds Jesus explaining the law in a new way. Jesus often says in this passage “you have heard it said…but I say unto you…” The law had come to be thought of as an action based ethic. Jesus seems to show them that morality is not limited to actions, but encoupass motive and even emotion.

    The second passage is Matthew 23, which is likely the most famous time Jesus condemns the Pharisees. It is here that Jesus calls them “white washed tombs” (v.27). This is a clear condemnation on the basis that the Pharisees held that as long as a list of actions was meet, the law was kept. Jesus contradicts the Pharisees’ understanding and carrying out of the law. Jesus wants people to get at the “spirit of the law.” The OT law may be read today by looking for a general truth that is behind that law. For example, all the dietary laws may be summed up as saying, “be healthy.”

    The first and greatest commandment is “love the Lord your God with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37)

    “And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:39-40)

  • 16. Thinking Ape  |  August 8, 2007 at 12:43 pm

    Joshm,
    I am sure that no one would dispute anything you say – but most of us, and myself especially, do not believe that the book of Matthew is compatible with the Pauline corpus, and hence is found in one of the trajectories that Jesus was actually giving interpretations for the law and was not giving a radical usurption of Jewish as Paul did. The question is whether Paul, not Jesus, changed the law.

  • 17. joejames  |  August 8, 2007 at 6:20 pm

    For what it is worth – I love the original post. I think the conversation took a bit of an odd turn however. To me the question arising out of the post is one of what to do with tough texts in the Old Testament that deal with God’s harsh dealings with humanity.

    On one level – being a Christian – it is quite embarrassing that Christians have found ways to explain all this away. Personally – I struggle with how to interpret these texts – are the literal? are they figurative? Is God seeking outlets to expose his own wrath? Is God mean? Quite honestly – I am embarrassed by more than a few texts from the Old Testament.

    On another level, I think it is futile to go digging for random texts from the bible and saying “see, God is mean, and harsh, and cannot be pleased.” I mean that is why so many people hate us Christians anyway, because we started that jazz. We went combing through the scriptures and found our “proof texts” to “strike down” the athiests and agnostics. (as if we’re supposed to be winning some war against them)

    No – No – No – Let’s be honest Christians, God cannot be explained or defined, and what’s worse, He can be more than difficult to defend!

    Biblical literists trap themselves – I am not good at defending God, and not sure I want to.

  • 18. Thinking Ape  |  August 8, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    joejames, thanks for the input. In a recent conversation with a Biblical literalist I couldn’t help get the feeling that Biblical literalists are literalists because they think that it is more reasonable, but because they fear the slippery slope of non-literalism. I think you and I would both agree that such a position seems to be antithetical to “faith” and more akin to “denial.”

    I hope, however, that you don’t think I was saying God is harsh and mean and cruel – I think the Bible says god is harsh and mean and cruel, the author of both good and evil. The Bible changes its positions because humans change their positions, not God.

  • 19. pbandj  |  August 8, 2007 at 11:03 pm

    thinking ape

    you raise a great question that truly plagues most rational people. i think there is some things that must be considered before concluding upon the seeming dicotomy between Jesus and Paul.

    notice, paul doesnt say he WAS a pharisee, but IS a pharisee. next, paul continued to obey the Torah his whole life. in his own defense, he says that he is unfairly being arrested because he has not broken the Torah, but instead he is being persecuted because he believes in resurrection of the dead (ie he is a pharisee and not a saducee).

    there are many more instances. but to give a short answer, there are many different “Law” in english that translate to different words in greek and even more words in hebrew. so the understanding the Torah is different that halakha and other words is crucial. paul often and openly (as does Jesus) speak against halakha that disagrees with Torah. basically, halakha is the interpretations of the rabbis. so when Jesus critiques the “clean” or “unclean” issue some of the leaders have, he is speaking of an interpretative issue, not the Torah itself. paul does the same with circumcision, where he says the halakha requires circumcision, but this is wrong. that is because Torah says that circumcision is not necessary for gentiles. so paul is still keeping in line with Torah, but not the halakha of the day.

    sure, there are many more issues that must be addressed, and i myself am asking these same questions right now. i am studying everything i can get my hands on about the topic in fact. but in each case (so far) i have found that in context of the passage and in the greek (not english translation) paul doesnt contradict Torah at all.

    now, i may find a case, but i havent yet. but i would encourage you to check out some of the stuff i said for yourself.

    may we seek the truth
    peter

  • 20. walkthewok  |  August 9, 2007 at 1:52 am

    Thinking Ape: “walkthewok, why the copy and pasting? All that glue cannot be good for your health.”

    ANSWER:

    1) I do not wish to plagiarize.
    2) To show that the internet has already provided a possible answer to your question
    3) To provide links to further resources that could potentially answer numerous amounts of your potential questions.

    I did not get a chance until now to post a reply to your last question that was addressed to me about how “we are nothing more than god’s playthings?” While I have a “copy and paste” answer prepared, I will not be posting it after having read your most recent comment. Upon reading your comment about glue, though funny as it may be, I have realized that in actuality, posting here is merely in vain. I will probably not be posting here again.

  • 21. Thinking Ape  |  August 9, 2007 at 3:09 am

    walkthewok, I apologize if the comment was insensitive, it was meant to be light-hearted. You must realize that I am well aware of the justifications for faith. I lost my faith in bible college due to the lack of reasonable discourse and the perpetual “re-directing” from one book to another, none of which would satisfy my questions. I would really prefer to know what you think. I don’t think you would write something like what you posted, not because you couldn’t, but because it brings up more problems than it solves – most of which have nothing to do with my original post.

    I cannot convince you that your posts are not in vain, but know that probably half of the readers of this blog are probably Christians, or at least “spiritually-minded” folk. What you post, people read, and if you are confident in your argument, then you will be strengthening yourself as well as others. You are correct in thinking that you probably will not convince the contributors here, at least not overnight – speaking for myself, this stuff is all I think about and my criticisms are buried as deep as your own beliefs. I am an ex-theology major, now a religious studies/philosophy grad who sits around and tries to figure out what this stuff is all about. I am not saying this to trump myself up, but simply that I am only looking for the accuracy of reality – not belief or non belief for their own sakes. I do hope you stick around and “fight it out” with us every now and then, if only to push us and yourself to ideas that maybe we haven’t thought about, or at least articulated before.

    pbandj – I’ll get to your comment later, but right off the top of my head, I find this statement a little strange:

    so when Jesus critiques the “clean” or “unclean” issue some of the leaders have, he is speaking of an interpretative issue, not the Torah itself.

    Are you saying that the clean and unclean issues were not in the Torah?

  • 22. Brad  |  August 9, 2007 at 10:35 am

    TA,

    If I read Peter correctly, I think he is talking about the interpretive practices of the Rabbis, who generally make conclusions about what is clean and unclean from principles outlined in the OT. Now, some things are explicitly stated as clean/unclean, but from interpreting “why” they are or aren’t, Rabbis often extended the principle to other areas. This is where differing interpretations come in, and where Jesus is believed to be critiquing the teaching.

    Rob Bell, in “Velvet Elvis,” talks about how a Rabbi would take up the “yoke” of his teacher, and preface their teacher’s “interpretations” (or “halakha”) with “you have heard it said that _______”, and their own teaching would ellaborate on that. The radical-ness of Jesus’ teaching (and Paul’s reinforcement), was that they rejected the yoke of many current interpretations and established His own WITHOUT another previous yoke (which, in truth, is what Jesus is referring to when he said “my yoke is easy”).

    And this may be getting away some from the original thread, but it is greatly relevant because, as Peter said, Paul never discarded the Torah.

    Romans 3: 27-31
    “27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one. He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”

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