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(Originally Titled "The Learned Men": The Text Here Used Is That Of "The Learned Men")
Chapter 15: The Bible Of The Learned Men Lasts
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The Bible of the Learned Men Lasts 

            Can a committee produce a work of art? Many would say no, yet we have seen that this large group of the king’s translators, almost threescore of them, together gave the world a work greater not only in scope but in excellence than any could have done singly. How did this come to be? How explain that sixty or more men, none a genius, none even as great a writer as Marlowe or Ben Jonson, together produced writing to be compared with (and confused with) the words of Shakespeare?

            Group writing of various kinds has long been useful or profitable. Encyclopedists have contributed vastly to education, even to political progress. We have had successful works of pooled information, such as the guidebooks compiled by the WPA writers in the depression years. Popular movies and mysteries are written by writing “teams.” The daily newspaper is an example of collective effort by scores of anonymous writers. But art is different. Art is individual. It may be of use, yet its quality transcends the use of one generation and becomes timeless.

            If hard work alone were the secret of success, we would have the answer, for we know that the learned men worked hard. Many of them labored like monks in rooms so cold and damp, except close to the fires, that fingers and joints got stiff even though they swathed themselves in their thick gowns. They worked at odd hours, early in the mornings and late at night, as other duties permitted. They endured rigors that we would think beyond us.

            But hard work alone, singly or in groups, does not insure a great result. Were the learned men saints, under direct inspiration?

            As we have seen, these men who made the translation for King James were subject to like passions as we are. Even as they gave themselves to the great work, they yielded also to petty vanities and ambition and prejudice, and though they put into words certain counsels of perfection we have yet to attain, they behaved in their own century by a code we have outgrown. If in general we of the present day lack their piety, we do not condone their persecutions or even their fierce doctrinal hatreds. Yet we must credit them with their temporary alliance for the work in hand. Besides enduring hardships, the learned men endured each other. Their zeal for the great undertaking survived their own wrangles over doctrine and their differences of opinion in personal matters. The quarrels that are recorded were over such differences rather than the work in hand. There they must have learned to rise above themselves for the good of the whole, an act of grace deserving of reward. But does even this account for the result?

            To know that the Bible words were beyond the choosing of the best of them, we have only to look at their individual writing. And this writing of theirs in books or sermons or attempted poetry also answers the suggestion that their work on the Bible was great because they lived in a great age. It was an age of great writing, in which poets and dramatists flourished, yet these men as individuals lacked the skills of those who made the Mermaid Tavern and the Globe Theater live in literature. In vain do we look to the eloquent Lancelot Andrewes or even to Miles Smith for the dulcet temper and torrents of sound in concord that mark the religious prose of Sir Thomas Browne, or for the dooming ire, like a knell, of Dr. John Donne. At the same time their Bible surpassed others in an excellence not to be attributed wholly to the original writers in the ancient tongues, so that Lytton Strachey could say of the prophets, “Isaiah and Jeremiah had the extraordinary good fortune to be translated into English by a committee of Elizabethan bishops.” Badly as some of the committee could write on other occasions, not only was theirs the best of the English Bibles; there is, in no modern language, a Bible worthy to be compared with it as literature.

            Though such verse as we have of their own lacks value for us, they were poets who fashioned prose without knowing how expert they were. Their meters were beyond our common attempts at scansion, but no more so than those of Donne and Blake, who are among the great English poets. Instead of rigid feet with accents, they relied on more adroit pulses, which had come to abound in their age of magic. Keats, silent on a peak as he marveled at Chapman’s Homer, might have marveled still more if he had much traveled through the realms of gold in the King James Bible. Chapman’s Homer of those same years no longer has the power to dazzle us, while the Bible’s power has shown increase. At Oxford and Cambridge the learned men breathed the air of noble language, amid brilliant buildings and gardens which could excite them to lofty efforts, in a domain that seemed timeless. And they produced a timeless book.

            Are we to say that God walked with them in their gardens? Insofar as they believed in their own calling and election, they must have believed that they would have God’s help in their task. We marvel that they could both submerge themselves and assert themselves, could meekly agree yet firmly declare, and hold to the words they preferred as just and fitting. At the same time they could write and they could listen, speak clearly, and hearken to the sounds they tested, as well as to the voice of what they deemed the divine Author. And that must have been the secret of their grace and their assurance: they agreed, not with other men like themselves, but with God as their guide, and they followed not as thinking themselves righteous but as led by a righteousness beyond them. They knew that human beings are but worms, but that man when he is good and docile may mount up with wings as eagles, to be the child of God.

            So they put down what they had to put down; their writing flows with a sense of must. Some of it they took wholly from former works, yet the must extends to what the 1611 scholars had the wisdom to adopt and, as it were, to inlay in the rest. A good deal of Shakespeare consists of such inlays which he made his own.

            If the marvel of what they did exceeds even the marvel of Shakespeare, it is because their aim was greater, no less indeed than the salvation of their world. They were, we must remember, not writing for themselves. Their qualification for the work was that they could speak with tongues, could converse and say their prayers in the ancient languages. They were writing a Bible to help the people, for those who knew little Latin and less Greek or Hebrew. As churchmen they were in fact working against the rule of the Church, for reading Scripture would in the long run make men think for themselves and rise in protest. This John Rainolds the Puritan had seen some thirty years before he proposed a new Bible. Among six conclusions which he “propounded, expounded and defended in publick disputation” at Oxford in 1579 was a statement that “The Authoritie of the Holy Scripture is Greater Than the Authoritie of the Church.” In doggerel which began with Moses and the prophets and continued through mention of the Gospels and Epistles, Rainolds concluded: 

And these books hath the holy Ghost set sooth for mortal wightes

That we in counte of faith and light might follow them as lights.

Avant all ye, who braine-sicke toyes and fancies vain defend:

Who on humane traditions and Fathers favors depend.

The holy written Word of God doth show the perfect way

Whereby from death to life arise, from curse to bliss we may. 

            Yet if the learned men risked their churchly powers when they worked to write the vision and make it plain upon tables, that they who run might read, in return the work would raise them out of time limitations into future ages. As they went beyond time by seeking eternal right-wiseness for all, they also escaped time in the human sense; they were, as nearly as they could be, of the people of their own time, and yet they are also of our time, since they speak to us.

            If now we try to define all the reasons why their work has lasted, we are sure to leave out many while giving too much weight to others. Parts of the Bible for which we have the utmost liking will seem to us apt and well-chosen without our knowing what choices the learned men had, or what the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures sought to convey. Because we have made ourselves at one with them, they confirm to us just what we ourselves think. This is true even of the odd sayings which we could never have devised, but which we have always known.

            And indeed the 1611 rhythms have been potent to affect writing, speaking, and thinking ever since the learned men produced them. When Thomas Hardy suggested that the translators were made poets by the lapse of time, he overlooked this continuing influence, and certainly he cannot have read their other, unpoetic writing of the same period. The King James men not only gave us truths, and errors, which have inspired us through the ages, but had an aptness of manner with beauty as they ordered the words, and the sounds within the words, in a wondrous divine progress. They knew how to make the Bible scare the wits out of you and then calm you, all in English as superb as the Hebrew and the Greek. They could make their phrasing proceed as though caused by the First Cause, without shadow of turning; they could make the stately language of threat and wrath or the promises of tender mercy come word for word from God Himself, from the Hebrew Yahweh and from the Christian Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. “Woe unto you that desire the day of the Lord! Let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” And later they could say to us, “Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace: and the God of love and peace shall be with you.” As we read we feel the divine power of judgment, and then this love and peace, this good comfort, this oneness of mind. The very word structure has the power to impress us, to arouse and quiet us, to confirm in us a basic sureness.

            Soul and body, the work of the learned men still moves the world because they wrought inside each sentence a certain balance of letter and spirit. If other versions have their day and pass, it is because this balance is somehow marred, even though strict verbal accuracy may be with them. Thus to read “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all” is for most of us a happy end, while the present-day scholar who says “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with the saints” leaves us out because most of us in the present spurn sainthood as we understand the word. The work of the King James men is somehow more immediate and lively, even literally lively, as when the 1611 Bible tells us in I Peter that the redeemed shall be “lively stones.”

            Though we may challenge the idea of word-by-word inspiration, we surely must conclude that these were men able, in their profound moods, to transcend their human limits. In their own words, they spake as no other men spake because they were filled with the Holy Ghost. Or, in the clumsier language of our time, they so adjusted themselves to each other and to the work as to achieve a unique coordination and balance, functioning thereafter as an organic entity – no mere mechanism equal to the sum of its parts, but a whole greater than all of them.

            Miles Smith in his preface bears out this idea that the work carried them above themselves. “The Scripture . . . is not an herb but a tree, or rather a whole paradise of trees of life, which bring forth fruit every month, and the fruit thereof is for meat, and the leaves for medicine . . . And what marvel? The original thereof being from heaven, not from earth; the author being God, not man; the inditer, the Holy Spirit, not the wit of the Apostles or prophets.” Here we have an echo of Sir Henry Savile’s distrust of wit as such, when the need is for better understanding. “But how shall men . , . understand that which is kept close in an unknown tongue? As it is written, Except I know the power of the voice,* (*In the King James version this is, “If I know not the meaning of the voice.”) I shall be to him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian to me.”

            “Translation it is,” Smith continued, “that openeth the window, let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water.” Many Other translators, such as Lancelot Andrewes, liked such figures. “While the dew lay on Gideon’s fleece only, and all the earth besides was dry; then for one and the same people, which spake all of them the language of Canaan, that is, Hebrew, one and the same original in Hebrew was sufficient.”

            Now Smith vented some modest boasting. “After the endeavors of them that were before us, we take the best pains we can in the house of God. . . . Truly (good Christian reader) we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one . . . but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one . . . To this purpose there were many chosen, that were greater in other men’s eyes than in their own, and that sought the truth rather than their own praise . . . They trusted in him that hath the key of David, opening and no man shutting.”

            So, “in the confidence and with this devotion did they assemble together; not too many, lest one should trouble another; and yet many, lest many things haply might escape them. If you ask what they had before them, truly it was the Hebrew text of the old testament, the Greek of the new,” which Smith compared to the two gold pipes of Revelation. They also had many Bibles in many tongues, and many books about the Bible.

            The Septuagint, Smith said in passing, had reportedly taken the Greeks seventy-two days. Of the King James Bible he said, “The work hath not been huddled up in 72 days, but hath cost the workmen, as light as it seemeth, the pains of twice seven times seventy two days and more.” Some who take this to mean 1,008 days ignore Smith’s “and more.” The work seems to have run from late 1604 through 1610, about six years.

            “Neither did we disdain,” Smith declared, “to revise that which we had done, and to bring back to the anvil that which we had hammered: but having and using as great helps as were needful, and fearing no reproach for slowness, nor coveting praise for expedition, we have at the length, through the good hand of the Lord upon us, brought the work to the pass that you see.

            “We have not tied ourselves to an uniformity of phrasing, or to an identity of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done. . . . For is the kingdom of God become words and syllables? . . . Niceness in words was always counted the next step to trifling.” Yet we have seen the niceness with which Smith and Bilson straightened out what Bois and his comrades offered. “We desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar.”

            Understanding the importance of the task of translation. Smith also gave generous praise to those who had gone before. His preface contains a long passage about the translation from Hebrew into Greek, ordered by Ptolemy Philadelphus, king of Egypt: “This is the translation of the Seventy Interpreters, so called, which prepared the way for our Savior among the Gentiles by written preaching, as St. John the Baptist did among the Greeks by vocal.” Smith so well regarded this work that he thought the Seventy should be considered “not only for Interpreters but also for Prophets in some respect. . . . Yet for all that, as the Egyptians are said of the Prophets to be men and not God, and their horses flesh and not spirit, so it is evident . . . that the Seventy were Interpreters, not Prophets; they did many things well, as learned men; but yet as men they stumbled and fell, one while through oversight, another while through ignorance; yea, sometimes they might be noted to add to the original, and sometimes to take from it.”

            As Smith said of the seventy, so we are still saying of the fifty-odd learned men, and again it is difficult to say where a line is to be drawn between interpretation and prophecy; for such is the communion of saints, and the importance of the Word that was God. This may be the secret of our later learned men or even of the seventy before them, for as Smith describes the work: “And in what sort did these assemble? In the trust of their own knowledge, or of their sharpness of it, or deepness of judgment, as it were in an arm of flesh? At no hand. They trusted in him that hath the key of David, opening and no man shutting; they prayed to the Lord. . . .”

            And so perhaps each learned man felt guided from on high, and respected, while the work lasted, one another’s guiding Spirit. This we cannot know, save by the results; but Smith at least was willing to credit his predecessors in translation with some such endowment. Acknowledging as he did in his Preface a debt to the Seventy Translators of Alexandria, Miles Smith made it clear that, although he and his fellow translators for the king approached their work with fresh energy and a resolve to make new all that should be new, they were nevertheless carrying out an ancient task. However directly they might feel and acknowledge divine guidance, they were part of a human chain comparable to the “line of the prophets”—a line of interpreters maintaining the Word. Bearing its own stamp, their writing would yet be derived from and dependent on the work of others.

            Chief of the sources to which they were indebted would be that translation begun by the man who prayed, from the flames at Brussels, that God would open the king of England’s eyes. Tyndale had given his life for the English Bible, and had he done no more than supply the idea and make an effort at translation, he must still be accounted a pioneer of the printed Scripture. But he did more. By the royal directive which said the new Bible should be based upon the Bishops’ Bible, King James actually perpetuated the work of that dangerous innovator who first planned a Bible in English print. For the Bishops’ Bible traced its descent through the Matthew and the Coverdale versions straight back to Tyndale, only a Tyndale with some alterations, a royal dedication and the episcopal blessing. Disappointed in his hope to work under the patronage of the Bishop of London, driven indeed to bitter realization that not only was there “no room in my lord of London’s palace to translate the New Testament, but also that there was no place to do it in all England,” Tyndale the exiled heretic had obviously contributed to the translation that bishops in time approved and the king authorized to be read in churches. And now King James had commanded the use of as much of this work as should stand up under review by the learned men. Thus the martyr’s prayer had an answer; a king’s eyes were somewhat opened and a royal order cleared the way for the English people to have what Tyndale planned for them.

            The year 1611 was too soon, perhaps, to call attention to this, but later commentators would weigh words and give Tyndale credit for much of the very phrasing of the New Testament. Word counts which estimate the debt to Tyndale in high percentages may be somewhat misleading in that the distinctive style of the King James version so depends upon the order of the words. Yet it does appear that after the best efforts of all the learned men, the final editing approved many of Tyndale’s readings. Miles Smith must have known this and perhaps considered it too obvious to require comment. Indeed a criticism common to Tyndale’s translation and to Smith’s own style in his Preface is a certain “roughness” or crudeness which, in other estimates, is seen to be simplicity and strength. Both men liked to use the short English words. This preference for simple, familiar language may be one mark of the true interpreter.

            Believing then as Christians must in the continuity of human effort, we can, while we marvel at agreement of the King James men among themselves, see them also as carrying on with understanding and sympathy the work of those who went before. The spirit of Tyndale, perhaps even of the more shadowy Wycliffe, must have been felt at Hampton Court and Stationers Hall and in the printshop under the Tiger’s Head. “We are so far off from condemning any of their labors that travaileth before us in this kind, either in the land or beyond sea, either in King Henry’s time, or King Edward’s ... or Queen Elizabeth’s of ever renowned memory, that we acknowledge them to have been raised up of God, for the building and furnishing of his Church; and that they deserve to be had of us and of posterity in everlasting remembrance.”

            Such remembrance the King James men themselves have had, and have. In his introduction to a reprint of the Miles Smith preface, Edgar J. Goodspeed, himself an authority in the field of modem translation, says, “Of all the forms of the English Bible, the most distinguished and widely cherished is the King James Version,” and adds that it is “predominantly the Bible of the layman, and it will undoubtedly continue to be so for a long time to come.” Laymen indeed who make indiscriminate trials of the modern versions are likely to miss the familiar cadences, and to be put off by such brisk phrases as “no more delay” where eye and ear expect “time no longer.” Perhaps the truth is that though we may turn to a modern translation if, unversed in ancient tongues, we want the exact meaning of a phrase, we do not feel in this reading the spiritual overtones that come through the older English words. Perhaps, when we read Scripture, we do not want the tempo of our own times. As an example of what a temporal translation can do, consider the work of a Dr. Harwood who in 1768 tried making the Bible over into the polite English of his era. For Matthew 14:6, “The daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod,” Dr. Harwood gave, “The daughter of Herodias, a young lady who danced with inimitable grace and elegance.”

            In a few centuries more, will the vision which made the King James rhythms perish from the earth? But what the people accept as vision becomes vision indeed. Granted, even the idea of God can change, has changed, and is changing. But if God today is an essence such as Alfred North Whitehead has tried to explain, it is yet clear that this Wisdom and Spirit, this basic life force, has used the King James Bible through an immense amount of living, with more to come.

            When the modern translations removed the old familiar est and eth endings of verbs, they thought to make the Bible less prosy; but for many it has the opposite effect. So also to take out the “begats” seems timid and prissy, and the same is true of words deemed obscene, as in I Kings 16:11 and II Kings 18:27. The Hebrew words mean just what the King James men made them mean, what soldiers mean today. A masterpiece may use what words it pleases, and the work of the 1611 translators lasts partly because they were fearless and called a spade a spade.

            But the lasting glory of the King James version is such that it is unnecessary to pick flaws in later attempts. It is our good fortune that we can have the modern versions while we keep the old Bible too. The omens are good for the work of those devout artists, the King James men, to outweigh the more prosaic or streamlined sequents. Modern shortcomings need not deprive or embarrass us, for ineptitudes are not new, and legions of professed poets have rendered parts of the Bible in ways so banal as to be grotesque. De Quincey shuddered at the thought of the Holy Scriptures as the age of Pope might have rendered them. Among the worst of poets, when he dealt with the Bible words, was John Milton. In the King James version. Psalm 1:1 reads “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.” Milton in 1653 made this: 

Blest is the man who hath not walked astray

In counsel of the wicked, and in the way

Of sinners hath not stood, and in the seat

Of scorners hath not sat. 

No wonder that the King James verse lives, while Milton’s verse, for most of us, has long since died.

            The author of The Seasons in his time had more repute as a poet than the King James men had in their time. Yet here is what James Thomson did to Matthew 6:28, 29: “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Now Thomson:* (*Paraphrase on the Latter Part of the Sixth Chapter of St. Matthew.):  

Observe the rising lily’s snowy grace.

Observe the various vegetable race;

They neither toil nor spin, but careless grow;

Yet see how warm they blush! how bright they glow!

What regal vestments can with them compare.

What king so shining, and what queen so fair? 

We can appraise how good the 1611 Bible is by sounding such depths of badness. The King James version has endured partly because its translators had ears to hear when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.

            The learned men did misread some words and phrases. Having to denote and connote at the same time, like all other writers, they sometimes missed their marks. They had fewer tools of Biblical scholarship than we have today, and some they had were of inferior quality. Yet many have treasured as beauty what are no doubt mistakes in phrasing. Does that matter much? There were varied and faulty readings in the oldest texts; many of them still remain and always will. Though modern scholars desire to present a truer translation, their success is limited and relative; they can at best only approach truth.

            If the strange doings, the wisdom and the advice, the maxims, the divine rages and the promised rewards of the King James version excite and bother us, no doubt the English Bible has lasted partly because it has bothered us, and those scholars who try to take the bother out make it too common. Like a mountain, the King James Bible gives us much to do if we are to learn much of it, and like fire in the air it plays for us with changing lights. When all is said and done, we have lived too long with the land, air, and water of 1611, with its people, their concepts and actions, to change with ease. When a true masterpiece is done, it stays done, it lives alone.

            Can we then ever define just what the beauty of the King James Bible is, just what has made us love it? Millions of sermons, those that lasted hours, and the neat little ones of about fifteen minutes today, have made of the Bible, and the 1611 Bible above all, what they pleased. Millions of people have put themselves to it to explain it, sometimes with rash valor to explain away parts of it. And though it has given to millions the words of life to live by, people have got from it quips and cranks and wanton wiles as well as the deep things of God. They have found blessings in the very conflicts which it allows its readers.

            Indeed, one reason the King James Bible lasts is that it gives us freedom to differ, affording us counterthoughts to rub against each other. Thus though the new translation captured readers slowly, in the long run it appealed to High Church, Low Church, and chapel alike. Though it was never merely a Puritan work, Cromwell and his fellow Roundheads pushed it forward. George Fox, Milton, Bunyan, and Defoe used it. Boswell quoted it roughly. In early Plymouth Elder William Brewster appears to have had only a Great Bible, yet soon Roger Williams, Increase Mather, Cotton Mather, the New Lights, Wesley, all made their teachings comport with the King James text. The heirs of Robert Barker went on printing as private owners of the right for a hundred years. At last it suited nearly all the Protestant sects. In the United States it has been the standby not only of “the Bible belt” but of all other regions. The Mormons took it with them to Utah. The Christian Science Church leans on it for lesson-sermons. Negro preachers love it. Untold millions could unite in their respect for the King James words when they could unite on almost nothing else.

            Although Shakespeare did not quote from it, the King James Version won praise from the great modern dramatist who himself loved fire and sparkle and debate upon all sides of a question. Writing of wide Bible distribution, Bernard Shaw declared: 

In all these instances the Bible means the translation authorized by King James the First. . . . The translation was extraordinarily well done because to the translators what they were translating was not merely a curious collection of ancient books written by different authors in different stages of culture, but the word of God divinely revealed through His chosen and expressly inspired scribes. In this conviction they carried out their work with boundless reverence and care and achieved a beautifully artistic result. It did not seem possible to them that they could better the original texts; for who could improve on God’s own style? And as they could not conceive that divine revelation could conflict with what they believed to be the truths of their religion, they did not hesitate to translate a negative by a positive where such a conflict seemed to arise, as they could hardly trust their own fallible knowledge of ancient Hebrew when it contradicted the very foundations of their faith, nor could they doubt that God would, as they prayed, take care that His message should not suffer corruption at their hands. In this state of exaltation they made a translation so magnificent that to this day the common human Britisher or citizen of the United States of North America accepts and worships it as a single book by a single author, the book being the Book of Books and the author being God. 

            Today even the godless admire the splendors of the King James words, retaining them in their thoughts and on their lips as if they expressed truisms or slogans, or charming, sometimes comic aspects of the outworn. Thus they persist in our common language, and for words of power this may be enough; the Spirit that giveth life and the gospel, the good news that saves, each must find for himself. And so when some say that Jesus or the prophets must have meant this or that, perhaps we should presume to say in answer only that a statement means this or that to us. Read into the Bible what you wish; your gospel, or good news, may well be private. Can you rightly impose it on any other? We may enjoy the meanings that we find without thinking our meanings true for all, for thus all readers become priests unto God, and honor and keep faith with the learned men.

            Let us end with a passage from a letter dealing with divinity, the study of divine truth, written by Dr. John Rainolds and apparently unpublished until now. In this of his papers the father of the 1611 Bible wrote that the Gospel of John and the Epistle to the Romans are “the sum of the New Testament; Isaiah the prophet and the Psalms of David the sum of the Old.” Then he added: 

Divinity, the knowledge of God, is the water of life. . . . God forbid that you should think that divinity consists of words, as a wood doth of trees. . . . True divinity cannot be learned unless we frame our hearts and minds wholly to it. . . . The knowledge of God must be learned of God. . . . We have to use two means, prayers and the reading of the holy Scriptures, prayers for ourselves to talk with God, and reading to hear God talk with us. . . . We must diligently give ourselves to reading and meditation of the holy Scriptures. ... I pray God you may.

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