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I understand that the word bishop comes from the Greek word ‘episkopos’, which means overseer, superintendent, supervisor, or foreman. Also derived from ‘episkopos’ are the English words episcopacy, episcopate and episcopal.

The New Testament uses the word ‘episkopos’ in Acts 20:28, Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:7 and 1 Peter 2:25.

Some English Bibles translate this word as bishop (King James Version, Revised Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version, etc.), while others, attempting to distance themselves from certain types of church hierarchy, use a more neutral alternative, such as ‘overseers’ (New International Version, English Standard Version, etc.).

In the Epistle to Titus it appears that the position of ‘episkopos’ is similar or the same as that of presbyter, or elder, and, later, priest. The Epistle to Timothy suggests the position of deacon is subordinate to that of a bishop, though it carries similar qualifications.

Source: https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Bishop

My primary concern is with the etymology of the word that is translated in some Bibles as 'bishop'. Is there any connection between episkopos (επισκοπος) and Greek or Roman religions? Also, was the title/term bishop ever used in Judaism?

My secondary concern is when did the word 'bishop' first appear in translations from the original Koine Greek or Aramaic.

Thank you.

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    "… the same as that of presbyter". Actually, the opposite. The two main forms of church hierarchy are presbyterian (an elder, selected by the local members to represent them) and episcopalian (selected by the higher leaders to manage the lower members). Compare with parliamentary and soviet governments. May 18, 2022 at 23:14
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    Keep in mind that etymology does not necessarily help determine a word’s meaning in a specific, later context. Exhibit A: a “butterfly” isn’t an airborne dairy product.
    – Dan
    May 19, 2022 at 3:48
  • @RayButterworth - Yes, I wondered about that definition from the New World Encyclopeda. That's one of the reasons I came to Biblical Hermeneutics.
    – Lesley
    May 19, 2022 at 11:51
  • @Dan - quite so, and well put. It's one thing to do a cold analysis of a word and quite another to grasp the spiritual significance and application a couple of thousand years on.
    – Lesley
    May 19, 2022 at 11:54

4 Answers 4

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Etymology of ἐπίσκοπος

The word come from two Greek words:

  • ἐπί = on/upon or over
  • σκοπος = look intently

Thus, the word means "overseer" or "superintendent"

Meaning in Koine Greek

According to BDAG the word has two basic meanings

  1. one who has the responsibility of safeguarding or seeing to it that something is done in the correct way, guardian, ... eg, 1 Peter 2:25. The passages IMg 3:1 ... cp 6:1 show the transition to the next meaning.
  2. The term was taken over in Christian communities in reference to one who served as overseer or supervisor, with special interest in guarding the apostolic tradition (Ireneus, Origin), eg, Acts 20:28, Phil 1:1, 1 Tim 3:2, Titus 1:7. ... The ecclesiastical loan word "bishop" is too technical and loaded with late historical baggage for precise signification of usage with ἐπίσκοπος and cognates in our literature, especially the NT ...

Note that the relationship of ἐπίσκοπος (overseer), ποιμήν (shepherd), and πρεσβύτερος (elder) is made clear in Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:1, 5 where the elected elders/overseers were to shepherd the congregation as Jesus did. See appendix below for more information.

Further note: There is no office of "pastor" in the NT community except for Jesus (1 Peter 5:1-5) and the elders/overseers who were to do as Jesus did.

English "Bishop"

Our English word "bishop" arrives with us via the Middle English and Old English word bisc(e)op, from the vulgar Latin (e)biscopus, a variant of episcopus, from the Greek episcopos overseer. However, as noted above, the word pick up a great deal of "baggage", ie, meaning that was not inherent in the original Greek word.

For completeness, our English word "priest" come to us via middle English and Old English preost, which came from the Latin presbyter. This word came from the Greek πρεσβύτερος (elder).

APPENDIX - Ordination

The modern practice of ordaining some church officers, eg. priests, pastors, elders, deacons, etc, to various church functions began in the 3rd century, well after the New Testament was written. This is not to suggest that the practice is wrong, only extra-Biblical. Therefore, the debate in many churches about the rules of ordination and when the “laying on of hands” should or should not occur cannot be decided from the Bible because the Bible does not discuss the matter. Note the following facts:

FACT #1: The New Testament records no instance of any ordination to any office using “the laying on of hands”, or any other rite. Specifically, the practice of the laying on of hands occurs 31 times in the New Testament:

  • 3 times to bless someone (Matt 19:13, 15, Mark 10:16);
  • 8 times to arrest someone to put them in prison (Matt 26:50, Mark 14:46, Luke 20:19, 21:12, 22:53, John 7:44, Acts 12:1, 21:27);
  • 6 times to receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17, 18, 19, 19:6, 1 Tim 4:14, 2 Tim 1:6);
  • 10 times to heal someone (Mark 5:23, 6:5, 8:23, 25, 16:18, Luke 4:40, 13:13, Acts 9:12, 17, 28:8);
  • 4 times with an unstated purpose but the context suggests that it was for the reception of the Holy Spirit or similar (Acts 6:6, 13:3, 1 Tim 5:22, Heb 6:2).

FACT #2: The New Testament only records elders (or overseers) being appointed to a local church office (Titus 1:5, Acts 14:23, 2 Cor 8:19). While other church officers are mentioned (eg, apostles, prophets, deacons) there is no record of these being appointed (nor ordained) to their respective offices by a senior bishop or equivalent or anyone else except by God. Further, the method by which elders were appointed appears to be by election of the congregation (Acts 14:23, 2 Cor 8:19) as is clear from the use of the verb “cheirotoneo” – “to elect by raising the hand” – a practice (and verb) taken from the Greek Senate when voting. [Note: The New Testament uses the terms “elder” and “overseer” interchangeably. Acts 20:17, 28, 1 Tim 3:2, cf. Tit 1:5, 7, 1 Peter 5:1-3]

FACT 3: Our English word “pastor” is from the Latin, “pastorem”, meaning “shepherd”; and thus, is the equivalent of the Greek, “poimen”. The New Testament makes it clear that elders were to discharge this “shepherding” function (Acts 20:17, 28, 1 Peter 5:2). However, there is no New Testament instance where a pastor/shepherd is a distinct office from that of elders or apostles. Further, the New Testament makes no distinction between the “laity” and “clergy”. Such is a later (but still early) invention. Put another way, while there are many people in the NT with titles of elder, apostle and prophet, not a single person is named as “pastor/shepherd”, except Jesus Christ in Matt 2:6, 1 Peter 5:4, Heb 13:20, John 10:11, 14, 16, Rev 7:17

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  • Acts 6 shows the Apostles ordaining the Seven, so it's not accurate to say that there's no ordination in the NT. Also Paul seems to assume Timothy has authority to lay hands on both bishops and deacons. (1 Timothy 5:22) May 22, 2022 at 1:43
  • @JamesAjiduah - In Scripture it is usually God who does the ordaining. Jesus himself quoted from Psalm 8:2 to rebuke the religious leaders who objected to children praising Jesus as the Son of David. It is God who ordains praise from the lips of children and infants (Matthew 21:16). I am persuaded by the three facts outlined by Dottard.
    – Lesley
    May 22, 2022 at 14:06
  • @Lesley Unfortunately, those three "facts" fly in the face of Acts 6 and 14. Acts 6:5-6 says quite clearly, "This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them." Acts 14: 23 has similar words for the ordination of elders, where Paul and Barnabas choose and lay hands on them. So yes, your facts contradict these verses. May 22, 2022 at 18:16
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    @JamesAjiduah - where in Acts 6 does the Scripture say these men were "ordained" - it does not - that is a modern interpolation. The laying on of hands in Acts 6 was for the giuft of the Spirit for their chosen work but it was not an ordination.
    – Dottard
    May 22, 2022 at 21:54
  • @Dottard That's precisely what an ordination does. Else Paul wouldn't have told Timothy these words: "Never accept any accusation against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest also may stand in fear. Do not ordain anyone hastily, and do not participate in the sins of others; keep yourself pure." 1 Timothy 5:19‭-‬20‭, ‬22. If Timothy's laying on of hands wasn't necessary for ministers to be approved, why did Paul say that? May 23, 2022 at 15:37
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Leaving Terms Untranslated to Denote Offices

In English there exists a (good, useful) convention (or if it isn't a convention, then a grammatical rule) whereby a word that denotes an office is made distinct from the bare word itself: a Dr. is a teacher, but not every teacher is a Dr., for example.

This applies to the Greek terms for offices in the church also, inasmuch as they have everyday meanings in addition to their being offices in the church.

Our English words bishop, priest and deacon are simply taken from the original Greek words episkopos, presbyteros, and diakonos.1 They were left untranslated in both Latin and English always, because these offices go back as far as the New Testament itself.

Episkopos (Overseer/Bishop)

This word is comprised of epi (over) and skopos (seer), that is, overseer. Hence other translations include superintendent, guardian. The Latin equivalent is the recognizable word supervisor, comprised again of super (over) and visor (seer).

That is, one who watches over as one responsible—i.e., depending if the context fits, a guardian of said. It's unclear when the tradition began, but bishops began to carry a crosure, which is a symbol of a shepherd, signifying their being bishop in the church.

enter image description here

Acts 20:28 Take heed to yourselves, and to the whole flock, wherein the Holy Ghost has placed you overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which he has purchased with his own blood.

1 Peter 2:10 For you were as sheep gone astray, but now you are turned back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

The role of a bishop or overseer is thus to guard, guide, and rule the flock like a shepherd. this role of bishops is why it became traditional for a bishop to carry a crosier (an symbolic or ornamental shepherds crook with which a shepherd saves sheep from straying), as a symbol of his being a shepherd.

enter image description here

One can also make the word something negative by affixing the word other, making it mean, a looker into the affairs of others (i.e. busybody or nosy):

1 Peter 4:15 For let none of you endure suffering as a murderer, or a thief, or an evildoer, or one who looks into the affairs of others (allotriepiskopos).

But this is never the sense this is used outside of the above passage (and indeed, technically, it's a different word).

A bishop is made such by another bishop who lays hands on him, as we shall see is also the case even for deacons, albeit to a different degree.

1 Timothy 4:14 Neglect not the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.

2 Timothy 1:6 For which reason I remind you to kindle anew the gift of God that is in you by the laying on of my hands.

More on this and its relationship with elder below.

Presbyteros (Elder/Priest)

As in English older man and old man are largely synonymous, so in Greek: presbyteros is the comparative form (older man) of presbys (old man). In the Old Testament, in translates zaqin (old man):

Genesis 18:11 Abraham and Sarah were both old (zikenim/presbyteroi), and advanced in years, and the way of women had ceased with Sarah.

However, since the New Testament nowhere explains what it means by elder, or even bishop (i.e. as a new concept, but rather assumes its being known already, merely refining who qualifies for the office), it seems that an analogy is being drawn with the elder concept in the Old Testament: namely, respected quasi-priestly community leader and authority among the people (cf. Mt 15:2; 16:21; 21:23; 26:3, 47; 57, etc.), intimately associated with the dealings of Moses with God, and the establishment of the New Covenant itself (Ex 24:1, 9-10).

enter image description here

Exodus 12:21 And Moses called together all the elders (zikenim/presbyteroi) of Israel and said to them: Take for yourselves a flock for your families, and slay the passover.

With Jesus being the New Moses (Deut 18:15; Acts 3:22 | Ex. 24:8; Mt 26:28), and the Sacrifice of Calvary being commemorated by the Eucharist (Luke 22:11, 17), thus making Him the New Passover (1 Cor 5:7; Jn 19:6; Ex 12:46), it makes sense that those who celebrate the New Passover/the Eucharist are thus called elders.

As should perhaps evident already from the synonimity of oversight and being an elder in a community, but as is also borne out by history, bishop and elder are synonymous insofar as every overseer is also an elder—yet every elder is not necessarily an overseer.

The New Testament was neither intended to be the source of the doctrine that there should be elders and what precise roles and limitations the office has, nor even if it was has it proved to be sufficiently explicit on the precise relationship between the terms. However, writings from a time long before any Christianity had to be 'reverse engineered' from Scripture, instead being conveyed directly from Apostles and disciples thereof to the Christian community (the Scriptures being helps, supports, and divine guidance in the same matters conveyed), are more helpful in this regard.

Namely, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, writing at the turn of the second century (I.e. at around the same time John wrote Revelation), wrote to the bishops of various churches, addressing one bishop (overseer), but many priests (elders). This is so explicit that it bears no quotation. Suffice it to say he writes at the very end of a long life, being disciples from a very young age. He is not espousing a novel conception of the structure of the church, rather, he addresses single bishop over various cities outside of his own, proving this structure well precedes the first century, and is spread across the world, even to Rome. Indeed, all the earliest writings that deal with successions of bishops (one bishop laying hands on another to succeed in ministry) list one bishop of, for example, Rome, never multiple.

... For your rightly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted to the bishop as strings to a lyre . (Ignatius, To the Ephesians, cap. 4).

I'n aware of anywhere in either the New Testament or early Christian where bishop and elder are conflated, except when a bishop is called an elder (just like the president is a government official, but not every government official is a president).

The Encyclopedia Britannica asserts (Priesthood):

... Originally the terms presbyteros (“elder”) and episkopos (“overseer”), current in the New Testament and the early church, were probably identical. From the 2nd century on, however, the sacerdotal hierarchy developed along the lines of the Hebrew priesthood, the title episcopus, or bishop, becoming reserved for those who presided over the presbyterate, then called sacerdotes because they shared in the episcopal sacerdotium (“priesthood”), which included the offering of the eucharistic sacrifice of bread and wine. But the conferring of holy orders (ordination of presbyters) and administering the sacrament of confirmation, together with administration of the diocese (jurisdictional area), were confined to the episcopate. In due course the threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons (administrative and liturgical assistants in a parish) became organized on a diocesan basis. This remained the norm in the Western church until the Reformation in the 16th century, when it was repudiated by the continental Reformers (e.g., Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Huldrych Zwingli). In Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Swedish Lutheranism, and Eastern Orthodoxy, apostolic succession and jurisdiction have been maintained, especially in the Roman Catholic papacy and in Eastern Orthodox patriarchates. ...

This ignores the fact that Ignatius already speaks of this threefold delineation at the end of the first century, even though he is writing at the culmination of his life, and also assumes the presence of this structure in every church he writes to as already being in place—he is not suggesting or recommending anything, but commenting on the state of things as they already where when we was just about to be martyred in his very old age—having been discipled by none other than Polycarp who literally was discipled by John the Apostle!

As we saw above, the office of bishop is compared in at least some way with Jesus' oversight of the church as the highpriest/shepherd (high priest, not the only priest!), while the office of elder loosely corresponds to Old Testament priesthood in that it is associated with a central sacrifice, namely, the passover. This perhaps explains the existence of the bishop's mitre, which resembles what is spoken of in the Old Testament concerning the attire of the highpriest, namely the turban or headdress, as well as the bishop's crosier (shepherds crook). Every bishop is in a sense a local representation or instantiation of Jesus, as it were, and every priest therefore a representation fo His inner circle of Apostles. Ignatius puts it this way:

enter image description here

For, since you are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, you appear to me to live not after the manner of men, but according to Jesus Christ, who died for us, in order, by believing in His death, you may escape from death. It is therefore necessary that, as you indeed do, so without the bishop you should do nothing, but should also be subject to the presbytery, as to the apostle of Jesus Christ, who is our hope, in whom, if we live, we shall at last be found. It is fitting also that the deacons, as being the ministers of the sacraments of Jesus Christ, should in every respect be pleasing to all. For they are not ministers of meat and drink, but servants of the Church of God. They are bound, therefore, to avoid all grounds of accusation against them, as they would do fire. (Ignatius, To the Trallians, 2).

Not that all of these developments such as vestments and crosisers date back to the Apostles, of course, only that they naturally fruit forth from the fundamental identify of the office itself., which is more kernel-like, and has always been present, East and West, North and South, since the beginning of the church.

Diakonos (Servant/Deacon)

Diakonos does not mean servant in the sense of one enslaved to another, but one who works in the service of others, such as the servants of a King (Esther 2:2). Another translation might be minister or attendant.

Acts 6:2-3 And so the Twelve, calling together the multitude of the disciples said: It is not fitting for us to leave the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, choose from among you seven approved men, full of the Spirit, and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this purpose. But as for us, we will persevere in prayer and in the service of the word. And the word pleased all the multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochros, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicholas, an Antiochean convert, whom they stood before the Apostles; and praying, they laid hands on them.

This was the first creation of deacons, or the office of servant in the church. There are only a few Apostles, yet many Christians must be attended to as to the distribution of sacraments and other things, and so the Apostles' hands are laid on worthy men chosen from among the Christian disciples, making them men with a distict set-apart role in the church.

In the second century, in writing his Defense to the Romans defending the innocuity of Christianity (contrary to accusations it involved itself in cannabalism, because of the Eucharist—among other accusations), Justin Martyr wrote what what deacons did in the early church during the celebration of the Eucharist (today called Mass or Divine Liturgy or Qurbana/the Sacrifice):

. . . those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion (First Apology, 65).

enter image description here

This seems to be identical to what is referred to, in fact, in the quote from Acts above—in any case, per the records themselves, this was what deacons did in the early church.

Suffice to say this too was an office, not just a bare noun or description. They were worthy men selected from among the people to this purpose. Making them holy, giving them a distinct role in the church.

Contrary to the former office of elder (bishop being a kind of elder merely, not a separate office as such), the office of deacon has no precedent in the Old Testament.

Conclusion

Since offices are clearly outlined in the New Testament (although the distinction between elder and bishop is not as clear as the distinction between bishop and deacon), we ought to leave untranslated terms which denote the office (or at least in some other way denote it, by capitalizing the word), when they do, as it has been done quite literally for 2000 years—to admit the church has been wrong from the beginning is to admit the church has been wrong, period—and there is no other church to be found, nor did Christ found another.


1 When we remove what in Greek is merely a grammatical fluff (i.e. not part of the word, the final os), we get episkop, presbyter, and diakon. Which in Latin form becomes episcop, presbyter, and diacon (Greek k in Latin = c). From here it's easy to see how we end up with the English bishop, priest (through Germanic priester), and deacon. It's thus etymologically illiterate to assert that translating presbyter by priest in English is some kind of anachronism or importing of later conceptions of priesthood, since the Old Testament priests (and pagan priests for that matter) are so called in English precisely only by analogy to the Christian elder, and his role, not the other way around!

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  • Lots of interesting and useful information here. Thank you.
    – Lesley
    May 22, 2022 at 14:07
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You should start with Etymonline site for etymology:

  • episcopal (adj.) mid-15c., "belonging to or characteristic of bishops," from Late Latin episcopalis, from Latin episcopus "an overseer" (see bishop). Reference to a church governed by bishops is 1752. With a capital E-, the ordinary designation of the Anglican church in the U.S. and Scotland, so called because its bishops are superior to other clergy. Chambers' "Cyclopaedia" (1751) has episcopicide "the murdering of a bishop."
  • bishop (n.)
    Old English bisceop "bishop, high priest (Jewish or pagan)," from Late Latin episcopus, from Greek episkopos "watcher, (spiritual) overseer," a title for various government officials, later taken over in a Church sense, from epi- "over" (see epi-) + skopos "one that watches, one that looks after; a guardian, protector" (from PIE root *spek- "to observe"). Given a specific sense in the Church, but the word also was used in the New Testament as a descriptive title for elders, and continues as such in some non-hierarchical Christian sects.

Episcopos or episcopum (Latin) clearly means Bishop, overseer. In the Greek context, it refers to an overseer, guardian in education, tutor, especially of tutelary gods (compare ἐπισκοπέὠ, Παλλὰς ἐ. [Refs 6th c.BC+]. The Intermediate LSJ entry states:

ἐπίσκοπος1 (ἐπί-σκοπος, ὁ,)

  1. one who watches over, an overseer, guardian, Hom., Soph.:—of tutelary gods, Solon., etc.
  2. c. dat., ἐπ. Τρώεσσι one set to watch them, Il.
  3. a public officer, intendant, sent to the subject states, Ar.
  4. a bishop, NTest.

Greek, Roman and English terms cannot be used among Jews. They use only Hebrew words and have become strictly Hebrew only after the Temple destruction in the first century. Before that they used to be open to other cultures and languages as we see in the NT.

Bishop: Etymology from Wiktionary-

From Middle English bischop, bishop, bisshop, biscop, from Old English bisċop (“bishop”), from British Latin *biscopo or Vulgar Latin (e)biscopus, from classical Latin episcopus (“overseer, supervisor”), from Ancient Greek ἐπίσκοπος (epískopos, “overseer”), from ἐπί (epí, “over”) + σκοπός (skopós, “watcher”), used in Greek and Latin both generally and as a title of civil officers. Cognate with all European terms for the position in various Christian churches

Bishop is an old English word, and we can see from this example of Phil 1:1 that it has been used in the translations since Wycliffe Bible (bischopis) of the 14th century, and even the Germans used the same cognate word for it. It doesn't matter if you use the word translating from Latin or Greek Bible, because it makes no change. Its etymology comes from Latin-Greek anyway. It will be translated the same in Titus 1:7 as in Phil 1:1 and elsewhere: bisshoppe, Bisshop, or Overseer.

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The etymology of "episcope" as "overseer" is a poor indicator of what an overseer oversaw. In 2nd Temple Judaism, an "episcope" ("overseer") controlled the purse strings for the synagogues:

...In Talmudic times the alms of the congregation appear to have been collected by two persons (B. B. 8b), but the term "gabbai" seems to have been restricted to publicans or tax-gatherers. A pious man who became gabbai or tax-gatherer was expelled from the company of other students of the Law (Yer. Dem. ii. 23a). According to E. Hatch ("Organization of the Christian Church," Oxford, 1888), the office of bishop in the Christian Church was derived from the treasurer of the synagogue, whose duties are now performed by the person known as "gabbai."...

Judas was the gabbai/treasurer of the Twelve:

[Jhn 12:4-6 YLT] [4] Therefore saith one of his disciples -- Judas Iscariot, of Simon, who is about to deliver him up -- [5] 'Wherefore was not this ointment sold for three hundred denaries, and given to the poor?' [6] and he said this, not because he was caring for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and what things were put in he was carrying.

Judas' control of the "bishopric" then, was to be the fund manager for the Twelve. As often happens today, he put his fingers in the bag and purloined the funds. So you can see why the role of overseer/treasurer would require a man of great integrity:

[Tit 1:7 NKJV] [7] For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money,

But a man named Ignatius turned the original meaning and description into someone in the very high up in the unscriptural hierarchy of the Catholic debacle.

Judas was replaced by Matthias as treasurer for the Twelve.

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