How Historians Work — Lessons for historical Jesus scholars

by Neil Godfrey

Recently a theologian kindly advised me to do a bit of background reading on how historians work (specifically to read chapter one of From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods by Martha Howell & Walter Prevenier) in order to come to see that historical Jesus scholars do work by the same principles that all other historians generally use.

As I recall, after the last time you claimed . . . that New Testament scholars working on historical questions use different methods than other historians, or that I had failed to adequately articulate my methods and those of the guild, I referred you to Howell and Prevenier’s From Reliable Sources. Chapter One would serve you well, and get you clued in on the basics that seem to still elude you. (Comment by Dr James McGrath)

But chapter one addresses only the nature of what is widely called “primary sources” by historians (archaeological remains and direct testimonies, including oral reports. This chapter focusses

exclusively on the type of resources that most other research guides call primary sources. (From Review by Ronald H. Fritze in The Sixteenth Century Journal XXXIII/4 (2002), p. 1248)

This is the very evidence we lack for historical Jesus studies.

But chapter two does indeed address in detail how historians should approach the written sources (in this case “secondary sources”) we do have for Jesus.

Misunderstood lesson from Chapter One

Unfortunately my theologian advisor had not read chapter two and insisted that it really was chapter one that I needed to read because, he explained, it mentioned “oral traditions”. Sorry, sir, but that chapter does not as far as I can see use the phrase “oral traditions”, though it does speak of orality as a primary source — that is, it refers to genuinely oral communication as heard by the researcher in the here and now. The chapter thus refers to “oral reports”, “oral evidence”, “oral sources”, “oral communication”, “oral acts”, “oral witnessing”.  HJ scholars do not have any evidence like this for Jesus. The early Christian evidence is all written and literary, not oral, and it is all secondary, not primary. If there had been any oral reports relaying the narratives of Christianity before the Gospels appeared they are all lost now and researchers must rely upon secondary written evidence alone. They may attempt to uncover what they believe are “oral traditions” behind that secondary written source but that is not the type of primary “oral source” that Howell and Prevenier (H&P) are discussing in chapter one. The only sources available are written and secondary.

But even here in this discussion of primary sources a critical principle is stressed:

Historians can place trust in oral sources only to the extent that they can be verified by means of external evidence of another kind, such as archaeological, linguistic, or cultural. (p. 26)

External controls are needed for verification of any narrative. That is, don’t believe everything you hear or read. Don’t accept a story as reliable without first testing it by some evidence outside the story and independent of the story-teller. In this particular case the principle may appear stricter than that since it requires the external check to be of a different type of source format altogether. This requirement is only an application of the need for independence of sources, however. Two oral reports (even from people who do not know each other) saying the same thing can hardly a priori be assumed to be truly independent in their ultimate origin.

But Chapter Two has the answers

So what is in chapter two that I believe would truly educate the theologian who has ambitions to be recognized as a real historian? Here is how H&P open this chapter:

In order for a source to be used as evidence in a historical argument, certain basic matters about its form and content must be settled. (p. 43, my emphasis etc as always)

Now what is the first basic matter that is applicable to our study of the evidence for the historical Jesus?

[T]he source must be carefully located in place and time: when was it composed, where, in what country or city, in what social setting, by which individual? Are these apparent “facts” of composition correct?  — that is, is the date indicated, let us say, in a letter . . . the date it was actually written? Is the place indicated within the source the actual place of composition? . . . .

[T]he source must be checked for authenticity. Is it what it purports to be . . . Can we tell . . . that the document was not composed where it presents itself as having been composed? . . . . (pp. 43-44)

H&P are addressing questions of forgery and documents that provide false information as well as how we must seek to properly understand all the information that a document can offer. I submit that the same questions are just as essential for any historian approaching the Gospels as sources about the historical Jesus. What is the purpose of the Gospel of Mark? When was it written? For whom and where? By whom or what group? How do we know?

How can one possibly know how to interpret the Gospels as historical sources unless one first answers these questions? If the answers to these questions are matters of interpretation and not established “fact” then everything else the historian builds on that foundation is radically insecure. Much more secure is to treat the Gospels as literary and theological sources of beliefs or narratives of the time period in which they first appear.

Much of the early pages of this chapter addresses the sorts of analysis the historian needs to apply to original documents or autographs. Since the manuscripts that are the basis of early Christian studies clearly do not fall into this category I will skip the points applying to that particular discussion. (Though even in the case of “authentic manuscripts” questions and tests of “authenticity” both of the manuscript itself and the claims within the manuscript, including claimed authorship, must be applied.)

In the first case, the question is whether documents do in fact originate as they claim (i.e., that were produced by the institution — the chancery, governmental agency, or firm, for example — or by the individual claiming authorship). . . . In the second case, the question is whether the documents provide reliable information. Thus, an “authentic” document may contain “inaccurate” information, and an “inauthentic” document may contain utterly trustworthy data. (p. 57)

So it is not being hypersceptical to ask and investigate if the Annals of Tacitus or the tenth book of Pliny’s letters are genuine or the prologues of Luke and Acts are genuinely reliable factual information. It is the sort of question that is expected of a diligent historian. (I am not saying here that they are not genuine, but only that the question itself is not a silly one as some people in their ignorance laughingly say it is.)

Historians are not detectives

It is common to read theologians comparing their “historical” researches into Jesus to detective work. Such amateurish notions need to be placed alongside H&P’s explanation that

historians are not reporters or detectives. They are interpreters of the past, not its mediums. (p. 60)

This statement alone ought to give pause to those who tread history as a study where all the “facts” of the life of a man are hidden beneath theological and mythical literary tales and doctrines and must be somehow teased out by means of such judgments as about what (we know) would have embarrassed the (unknown!) authors.

Reading H&P supports my own argument that the Gospels and epistles are indeed reliable sources — but sources of the teachings etc of the authors. As I posted recently with reference to Lemche (and earlier with reference to Davies and Thompson and others) it is entirely circular reasoning to assume that

  1. the narratives presents events as if they really happened
  2. so the narratives are a reliable source from which to uncover those events
  3. and we know the events are real because the narrative presents them as real

Genesis of a Document

The first section by H & P that is most directly applicable to the nature of our evidence for Jesus begins on page 62 under the heading “Genesis of a Document”.

The identifications [of time, place, author] provided by the source itself are . . . often misleading. . . . [S]ometimes authors are deliberately faking a source, sometimes they are disguising the real place and date of issuance. (p. 63)

This is not taken from a manual for nihilists on how to reject everything people think they know as false. It is from a manual for budding historians, or really for historians who are embarking on some sort of post-graduate work. Yet when such questions are raised among theologians the response sometimes implies that such scepticism is bad, extreme, hyper.

The earliest Gospels are generally dated to within a few years of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 c.e. But this dating is based entirely on a naive reading of the documents themselves and the question is very rarely asked if it is possible that an author had reasons for wanting his Gospel to appear to have been written from around that time. Anachronisms in the Gospels that do indeed suggest a much later date (e.g. Pharisees and synagogues dotting Galilee) are dismissed with facile rationalizations. Linguistic features such as Aramaicisms are sometimes naively assumed to be unconscious evidence of provenance without any regard for the possibility that they are conscious literary artifice. It is as if to raise such questions risks opening up too much uncertainty about the sources used to support a current hypothesis so they must be dismissed as “extreme” or “not serious”. But that’s not how H&P advise their neophyte historians. H&P seem to regard scepticism as a healthy trait.

And I have not even begun to address the claims in the prologues in Luke and Acts or the “we passages” in the latter!

“Originality” of the Document

Most of the documents that come from the past — whether a law code, a contract, a philosophical text, or a hagiography — are products of an intellectual tradition, and historians using an isolated text must know something about this tradition in order to read their text responsibly. (p. 63)

So far so good. I am sure all theologians and HJ scholars agree with this — at least in theory.

So how does one go about doing this in practice?

In some cases, the historian can address these questions only by comparing the particular text with similar texts from the same period or from the past (if there is no independent record of the legal or institutional or intellectual history to which this text belongs). (p. 64)

“Or from the past”?? Now bang! There goes out the window each one of those attempts to interpret Paul’s letters from the future — the Gospels. Or attempts to understand a hypothetical early first century oral tradition from Josephus.

Not all scholars make this mistake, however. Thomas L. Thompson understands such a historiographical principle perfectly when he compares the Gospels with past literature in The Messiah Myth. Other scholars who compare the Gospels with the literary tradition of the Jewish scriptures and earlier Jewish literature (even novels) likewise understand this fundamental principle. A few scholars (e.g. Engberg-Pedersen) also focus on analysing Paul letters within the early intellectual traditions of Greco-Roman thought and conclude that Paul was more indebted to Stoic thought than Jesus traditions.

More specifically, scholars are concerned with the way the author of one text takes over language from another, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes fully consciously, perhaps with the intent to represent the purloined text as original but more often in a deliberate effort to transmit the information from the former. . . . Naturally, it is one of the historian’s jobs to identify these borrowings, to label them as intentional or not, and to make sure his readers know which parts of the text he is himself using were derived from other, prior texts. (p. 64)

Again most HJ scholars would agree with this, again at least in theory.

But in practice it is a principle that seems too easily forgotten. So often one reads in works of scholars who should know better that Gospels that show signs of textual borrowing from one another are not independent witnesses.

There is another higher level at which this principle also applies in Gospel studies. A few scholars have understood the implications of this — at least patchily. Crossan, for example, understands the implications for the historicity of the Gospel accounts of the trial and execution of Jesus. Only a few scholars have demonstrated the consistency to identify nearly all of the Gospels as borrowings from earlier texts and to address the implications of this. The author’s intention when borrowing from earlier texts to create scenes in the Gospels is a question that does deserve to be addressed more deeply than it usually is.

Interpretation of the Document

This is not a simple topic and H&P defer their discussion of this to later chapters where postmodernist questions are brought onto the table. Suffice it to say here that H&P point out that this is by no means an easy question.

Yet HJ scholars so commonly seem to discuss texts as if their interpretation is obvious. Of course the meaning is “obvious” if one reads them within a certain hypothetical construct, particularly the one inherited through 2000 years of institutional and cultural authority. It is axiomatic for many scholars, for example, that the Gospels should be interpreted as biographies of Jesus. There are dissenters from this view among the scholarly community. But one has to search for them. I don’t mean that prevailing views are automatically wrong. I mean that such views ought to be addressed more rigorously and frequently than they are. The text that seems to be the most frequently appealed to as the definitive assurance that the Gospels are biographies is Richard Burridge’s What are the Gospels? Yet, unlike Michael Vines’ The Problem of Markan Genre, this work is completely lacking in theoretical foundation. Theory is not a strong point among theologians reading the Gospels and their interpretations are often quite naive.

Authorial Authority

With what authority does the author of a source, perhaps a newspaper reporter or a compiler of facts . . . . speak? Was he an eyewitness to the events he describes or did he participate in the design of the system for collecting the information? Was he even alive when the events he records are meant to have taken place? Is his information second, or third, or fourth hand? Is some of what the source relates a firsthand account, while other parts of the document are based on information that is taken from others? (p. 65)

Information taken from others is said to be “considerably less reliable” from information an author witnesses firsthand.

Understandably, authors are usually reluctant to acknowledge that they do not have such firsthand knowledge, for the revelation diminishes their authority. And rightly so . . . .  Historians thus make strenuous efforts to locate the truly firsthand reports of an event and to trace the relationship of other existing versions of the report to that original record. (p. 65)

That is, the distinction between primary and secondary sources, and the relative worth of each, is still alive and well though it was first established in the mid-nineteenth century by the “father of modern history” Leopold von Ranke. Of course other aspects of von Ranke’s (“Whig”) historiography have long since been superseded, but these mechanics are still as valid as ever.

Again there is remarkable naivety here among so many HJ scholars. So often they appear to simply take for granted that what they read in a Gospel must be sourced from an eye-witness or a tradition traced back to an eye-witness. But why? It is most important to know the source of something we read. How can such a critical question be defaulted, with little if any analysis, to “oral report”? The naivety with which this “answer” is regularly assumed is surely culpable when one at the same time takes note of the extent to which the written document is so clearly indebted to other literary works. But NT scholars so often brush this detail aside with another facile rationalization.

[I]t is naive to assume that everything a text reports was actually observed — much less that it occurred! (p. 75)

H&P follow on with a discussion of the reliability of even eye-witness testimony or firsthand reports and the fallacy of overvaluing the eyewitness as more reliable by mere definition. This discussion applies to those historical sources that do really appear to rely upon other “historical sources” themselves. But we have no such reason for making this assumption a priori in the case of the Gospels. I don’t grasp why simply assuming that a source must be an oral tradition means it must be oral tradition.

Comparison of Sources

I’m fudging H&P a little here since this section belongs to chapter three and not two. But it’s an important point. Chapter three contains the words “the traditional basics”.

Typically, historians do not rely on just one source to study an event or a historical process, but on many . . . (p. 69)

A source that is judged to be dependent upon an earlier one can be discarded as useless (p. 70).

It is much harder, however, to rank sources that all seem to be “original” in that each provides an independent account of the particular event in question. (p. 70)

Albert Schweitzer recognized this problem with our sources for early Christianity and that is why he wrote:

In reality, however, these writers [those arguing for the historicity of Jesus against mythicists] are faced with the enormous problem that strictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability. (From page 402 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.)

This is not the case with our sources for other historical persons and events that are studied by historians. Historical Jesus studies are, I believe, “exceptional” in this respect. They are the exception in the field of historiography.

Recall H&Ps observation in chapter one (cited above) about the sine qua non of external witnesses or controls!

H&P compile a seven-step process by which nineteenth century historians (E. Bernheim, Charles Langlois & Charles Seignobos) believed they could reliably compare independent sources (not the case with our earliest Christian sources) in order to arrive at “the facts”. H&P note that in the list only numbers 2 and 6 “seem uncontroversial”:

  1. If the sources all agree about an event, historians can consider the event proved.
  2. However, majority does not rule; even if most sources relate events in some way, that version will not prevail unless it passes the tests of critical textual analysis . . .
  3. The source whose account can be confirmed by reference to outside authorities in some of its parts can be trusted in its entirety if it is impossible similarly to confirm the entire text.
  4. When two sources disagree on a particular point, the historian will prefer the source with the most “authority” — i.e. , the source created by the expert or the eyewitness . . .
  5. Eyewitnesses are, in general, to be preferred, especially in circumstances where the ordinary observer could have accurately reported what transpired and, more specifically, when they deal with facts known by most contemporaries.
  6. If two independently created sources agree on a matter, the reliability of each is measurably enhanced.
  7. When two sources disagree (and there is no other means of evaluation), then historians take the source which seems to accord best with common sense.

Nothing here about criteria of embarrassment, double dissimilarity and coherence. And only two of the above are considered unquestionable.

#3 is also interesting in that it belongs here as a controversial inclusion. Not only Christian apologists are guilty of the fallacy of arguing that Gospels must be considered as containing reliable history to some extent because there are clearly parts of them that do refer to real places and persons. It almost seems to be an argument taken for granted by not a few theologians attempting to do history. They should be told that that line is SO nineteenth century!

#6 is fundamental and has passed the test of time. It works very well for historians of any other event or person. Historical Jesus scholars have squeezed it beyond recognition to make “independent” apply to different points of view within the one religious tradition. This is truly an exceptional use of the principle. HJ studies are truly the exception to the way history is ideally done more broadly.

As if to underscore this exceptional status of HJ studies one scholar recently confessed all when, in response to my request for evidence that HJ scholars do use the same methods as other historians, wrote:

And of course, let’s not forget the obvious example of historical Jesus research, which because of the fact that there are wackos of all sorts who wish to say every sort of thing possible about Jesus, or even claim he did not exist, historians have had to try to come up with objective criteria to defend minimal conclusions about matters that would, if it were any other figure from history, be considered obvious and beyond dispute.

Unfortunately, when the same scholar insisted I must read chapter one of H&P in order to understand that historical Jesus scholars work the same way as other historians, he was only advertizing his ignorance of even the most elementary principles as they are taught to other historians. Most unfortunately I think he may not be all that atypical of New Testament scholars more generally.

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  • 2012-01-14 16:16:40 UTC - 16:16 | Permalink

    So it is not being hypersceptical to ask and investigate if the Annals of Tacitus or the tenth book of Pliny’s letters are genuine

    Slight digression: Have you read Richard Carrier’s M.Phil thesis that he posted on his blog? He goes over why he thinks that Tacitus isn’t independent evidence for the historicity of Jesus and why Tacitus calling Pilate a procurator isn’t an indication of interpolation.

    • 2012-01-14 17:46:21 UTC - 17:46 | Permalink

      I don’t go along with the little scenario Richard posts (the deaconess Pliny tortured knew the gospels) but no matter (he is being flippant, anyway), he is surely right about Tacitus not being independent. I quote Schweitzer saying that there is nothing in Jewish or Gentile literature that could be used as controls and he has earlier addressed Tacitus and Josephus in relation to this question. H&P allude to the problem of a source like Tacitus in relation to Jesus when they express scepticism of sources that are clearly late and give no accounting for how they relate to anything contemporary with the events in question. (There is a Wikipedia article on historical methods whose principal source dismisses tales of Luther that only surfaced 20 years after his death — and McGrath advised his readers to study such a historian’s work.)

      The biggest stumbling block for my acceptance of even the possibility that Tacitus’s Annals might be a forgery was their length and detail. Why would anyone ever bother! But this rationale was ripped from me when I learned about the money to be made in Renaissance days for discoveries of such ancient documents. But that aside — I am simply no expert in Latin or Tacitus and none of my amateur reading is able to make no informed judgments on the various sides of the question, so I am quite content to defer to the authority of those who have long concluded that the work is genuine. That does not prevent me from questioning that little section about the Christians being made scapegoats for Nero’s fire of Rome, though. There are real obstacles there — especially the curious silence on the whole matter among early Church Fathers. But even if it is genuine, we are still no closer to independent testimony. Tacitus is hardly likely to have scoured official government documents to discover what he tells us here.

  • Steven Carr
    2012-01-14 17:43:19 UTC - 17:43 | Permalink

    If you look at the science of hadith, you will see that Islamic scholars use different criteria to establish facts about what the historical Muhammad and his companions said and did to the criteria used by New Testament scholars.

    It looks almost as though each religion developed its own criteria, especially designed to be used for that religion.

    When, in fact, they are simply following general historical principles, also used by secular historians to determine what Julius Caesar said when he was assassinated or what other sayings Julius might have used.

    But who can argue with the principle of independent attestation , known in the trade as ‘If 4 different Scientologists say something , it must be true.’

    • 2012-01-14 17:49:34 UTC - 17:49 | Permalink

      Touché! I wish now I had taken notice of H&P’s reference to the silliness of expecting historians to be able to uncover the actual words used by this or that person at a particular time — but it’s definitely in their chapter two if you care to look!

      • 2012-01-14 18:08:49 UTC - 18:08 | Permalink

        Maurice Casey can recover the words of Jesus at the Last Supper. Impressive, and factor in that he gets back to the original Aramaic!

        You have to be stunned by that level of skill.

    • rob
      2012-01-15 00:38:01 UTC - 00:38 | Permalink


      not promoting islam here , but i would like to know what your thought is on the debate. who owned who?


  • Beachbum
    2012-01-14 19:59:31 UTC - 19:59 | Permalink

    Very good Neil!

    Also, I am with Earl Doherty in the, “where exactly is this oral tradition evident?” camp. I mean: if the earliest records we have in the Jesus literature is Paul/Saul and he has to explain three times about the theological points of his platonic character (2 Cor 13:1, I know pseudo-Paul, but this strengthens my point), if the Marcionite teaching and Paul’s literary emergence from behind the pulpit are the earliest we have and they present anything but an historical character, or the endlessly confused details of the Jesus character that evince nothing solid about an historical character which should be the core, or anchor, for at least some details, then I fail to see any justification for claiming such a tradition oral or otherwise is in evidence. I call it wishful thinking and the last resort in a factually vacuous explanation. And those that claim the audience of the Epistle authors already knew the story of this Jesus character are forgetting that Paul (the literary character) was sent to preach to the Gentiles who would have had no need or means to know anyone the typical historian of the time would not have mentioned or thought interesting enough to record. I know I have to reiterate much to educated flora and faunae of the Hawaiian educational system. Why should anyone assume Paul would not have to do the same? Noting that many of his audience are neophytes, plebeian, and obviously unsure of the strong support they can bring to bear against other preachers and their proselytizing (Gal. 1:8). I see just exactly the opposite of what I would expect to see had there been any oral tradition carried into the second century.

    Again thanks!

  • Evan
    2012-01-15 01:48:28 UTC - 01:48 | Permalink

    What routinely shocks me when you post such a detailed and accurate disposition of a question regarding method like this is the crickets’ chirp that one hears from the “opposition.” This post should be adequate in and of itself to destroy the opinion that the Gospels can be used to determine historical events simply because of their lack of provenance … yet we will continue to hear that nobody has addressed the arguments for Jesus’ historicity.

    • 2012-01-15 03:25:59 UTC - 03:25 | Permalink

      Evan: “. . . yet we will continue to hear that nobody has addressed the arguments for Jesus’ historicity.”

      McG likes to say that mythicists are just like creationists. But with respect to Neil’s and James’ continual discussions on methodology, it’s the good doctor who reminds me of YEC advocates who seem to forget everything that was rebutted in the previous session.

      Monday –

      Q: “If monkeys evolved into humans, then why are monkeys still here?”

      A: [Very long, detailed answer that refutes the assertion and explains the evidence.]

      Tuesday –

      Q: “If monkeys evolved into humans, then why are monkeys still here?”

      A: [Very long, detailed answer that refutes the assertion and explains the evidence.]

      Wednesday –

      Q: “If monkeys evolved into humans, then why are monkeys still here?”

      [ad nauseam]
      Monday –

      Q: “Why won’t Neil admit that HJ scholars use exactly the same historical methods as other historians?”

      A: [Careful explanation as to why the methods HJ scholars use are misapplied, how they're supposed to be used, along with a discussion about the difference between primary sources and secondary, anonymous, unprovenanced literary sources.]

      Tuesday –

      Q: “Why won’t Neil admit that HJ scholars use exactly the same historical methods as other historians?”

      A: [Careful explanation as to why the methods HJ scholars use are misapplied, how they're supposed to be used, along with a discussion about the difference between primary sources and secondary, anonymous, unprovenanced literary sources.]

      Wednesday –

      Q: “Why won’t Neil admit that HJ scholars use exactly the same historical methods as other historians?”

      [ad nauseam]

  • 2012-01-15 08:29:11 UTC - 08:29 | Permalink

    I suspect our good doctor does not really bother to read all the responses to his assertions any more than he bothers to read with any care or attention the works he is quick to criticize. Perhaps he thinks he can get away with this because he assumes his audiences are as superficial as he is.

    To the list of recent evidence for this we can now add his discussion of Sabio Lantz’s diagram of concepts of God.

    That is not counting the times he has completely misread and misrepresented both Price’s and Doherty’s works, asserting they don’t say what they in fact do, etc etc as I have demonstrated many times. Once I asked him to repeat what exactly was the argument of mine that used Socrates as a foil and he eventually went floundering and came up with some nonsense that I was arguing genre rather than external attestation — he really had no idea.

    Of course, when I point out to him that I have addressed his assertions (one can scarcely flatter them with the term “arguments”) he has taken to simply replying “Just because you say you have addressed my arguments doesn’t mean you actually have.” In other words, I suspect, he doesn’t bother to read responses. Perhaps he is tired of being either embarrassed at seeing his incompetence pointed out or simply tired of reading things beyond his comprehension.

    Speaking of superficiality, I finally had a read of one of his Sci-Fi & Religion “Intersect” posts the other day. Intersect — it’s quite an impressive word, much more respectable for an academic chair to use than “Parallels” of motifs or themes. Such banal parallelism is so often poo-poohed as absolutely meaningless but if it is called an “intersect” . . . . impressive!

  • 2012-01-15 12:54:43 UTC - 12:54 | Permalink

    From the perspective of my reconsruction of post crucifixon Jesus traditions, see Ed Jones Dialogue – Vridar, for me the argument here is a matter of beating a dead horse. The first comment to the site should evidence that this “goes without saying”.
    Said by a ‘believer’ standing here in the lions den of secular critics, a rare bird indeed, taking advantage of at least one point of agreemennt.

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