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Much debate has been had over the use of 'the word' in John's prologue. Many early English translations translated the relevant pronoun in John 1:2-4 as 'it' instead of 'he', suggesting the referent to not be a male person but a thing.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through Him all things were made, and without Him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. (Berean Study Bible)

Contrast that with the Tyndale Bible (published in 1535)

In the beginnynge was the worde and the worde was with God: and the worde was God. 2 The same was in the beginnynge with God. 3 All thinges were made by it and with out it was made nothinge that was made. 4 In it was lyfe and the lyfe was ye lyght of men

Going beyond pronoun use are theologies which interpret the referent of 'the word' in the prologue differently. Some view it as a subordinate logos being, some as a co-equal 'person' of a bi-personal or tri-personal God, some as an active power of God, some as the wholly man Jesus, and so on.

If 'the word' in John's prologue is meant to refer to a person, one might expect to see the term used in a similar way in the rest of John's Gospel, or in other texts by John.

How does John use the term 'the word' (or similar terms) in his texts? In particular, how is 'the word' (or similar terms) used in the rest of the Gospel of John? Can we shed any light on the intended referent of 'the word' in the prologue by looking at other usages by John?

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  • The Word is currently in the bosom of the Father and is the one who both explains the Father and leads one to the Father (verse 18). Is it realistic to omit this essential fact when considering the meaning? Mar 13, 2023 at 15:47
  • @RevelationLad Well, depends if 'the word' is being referred to at 1:18. Mar 13, 2023 at 16:24
  • Are you perhaps looking to major on a minor? Wouldn't someone reading the Prologue focus on 1. What name must I believe in to become children of God? 2. Is the only begotten Son the only way to know and be led to the Father? “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Seems to resolve any concern over what matters most. Mar 13, 2023 at 17:10
  • 1
    @RevelationLad Don't follow, but basically everything said in condensed form in the prologue seems to be expanded upon in the rest of the Gospel, often repeatedly and at length. Mar 13, 2023 at 17:12

4 Answers 4

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There has been much written about the "Logos", and this question and answer will not settle the numerous questions orbiting this broad subject. So, let me offer a few clarifying comments:

"He" vs "It" in V2 & 3

The pronouns in John 1:1-18 are masculine because their antecedent is the masculine "Logos". More specifically:

  • Οὗτος (first word of V2) is the demonstrative masculine pronoun referring to "Logos", and thus should be strictly translated, "That man" or equivalent.
  • αὐτοῦ (twice in V3) is the masculine genitive pronoun referring to "Logos", and thus should be strictly translated, "his", or "of him". (Some adjustment is required for good English as well.)

"Logos" Elsewhere

BDAG list three basic meanings of Λόγος (Logos), only the third of which is relevant here:

  1. a communication whereby the mind finds expression
  2. computation, reckoning
  3. the independent personified expression of God, the Logos, ... eg, John 1:1abc, 14, 1 John 1:1, Rev 19:13. (There is some debate about whether Heb 4:12, 13:7 should be included in this list.)

Conclusion

What one makes of this is strongly influenced by one's personal theology which this site tries to avoid. So let me list some of the options:

  • Most Christians, including binitarians and trinitarians, on the basis of John 1:14 and Rev 19:13 simply regards "Logos" as one of the exalted titles of Jesus.
  • Unitarians and some Arians regard the "Logos" as active, creative power of God (or some variant).
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  • "thus should be strictly translated, "That man" [...] thus should be strictly translated, "his", or "of him"." How could Tyndale be so clueless, then? Mar 12, 2023 at 23:34
  • @OnlyTrueGod - that is a question for Tyndale. (I do not believe he was :clueless".)
    – Dottard
    Mar 13, 2023 at 0:22
  • It's not just Tyndale. The Geneva Bible, for ex., chose the same. Mar 13, 2023 at 2:25
  • @OnlyTrueGod - 90% of the wording of the Geneva NT is Tyndale's.
    – Dottard
    Mar 13, 2023 at 4:58
  • 1
    Why did they all copy Tyndale? Were they all clueless about basic Greek grammar? Mar 13, 2023 at 16:19
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The literary structure of John's Gospel is unique. Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John begins with a Prologue, which serves as an overture to his Gospel.1Regardless of whether this was composed by John or the Johannine community, and regardless of whether it was in part, or in total, a hymn, the Prologue is itself a completed work:

Any reader going through the Prologue to St. John's Gospel will easily notice its imposing majesty, it balanced proportions, the harmony of its moulding. Its thought goes forth in successive stages, conforming to rules that may escape us at first glance but of which we get a presentiment, more or les consciously. Taking up our stand in God, with the Word (v. 1), we are led progressively down to earth, into the vistas of Incarnation (v. 14), but only so as to mount up again towards God in one boundless flight and to regain the bosom of the Father, with the only begotten Son (v. 18).2

Therefore, the Word which is the subject of the Prologue is presented completely in the manner in which it is to be understood. It can be summarized as being with God in the beginning, becoming flesh, and returning to the Father. Moreover, the present position is at the same time its present activity. As Robert G. Hall explains the final verse of Prologue:

A reader trained among the apocalypses will understand this difficult saying as a call to inquiry, will seek one meaning and then another, and will know the Word made flesh (John 1.14) as the one in the Father's bosom who makes known the Father and as the one who leads us into the Father's bosom.3

Nothing in the Gospel proper, the narrative which follows, can supplant the explicit meaning which John intends the reader to understand before he gives other details in the life of Jesus. In other words, there are no "clues" which can override that which was made plain in the Prologue.


1. Peter F. Ellis, The Genius of John, The Liturgical Press, 1984, p. 19
2. M.É. Boismard, O.P. St. John's Prologue, translated by Carisbrooke Dominicans, Newman Press, 1957, p. 73
3. Robert G. Hall, "The Reader as Apocalyptist", John's Gospel and Intimations of the Apocalyptic, Edited by Catrin H. Williams and Christopher Rowland, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013, p. 268. [Note: Hall also discusses how ἐξηγήσατο means both to be a leader and to make known.]

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  • "there are no "clues" which can override that which was made plain in the Prologue." The problem with this claim is that the prologue is famously ambiguous. Even the question of where the 'prologue' is has been a matter of significant debate! Mar 13, 2023 at 16:40
  • @OnlyTrueGod “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Resolves any ambiguity on the most important point, which is to know the Father and be led to Him. Mar 13, 2023 at 17:06
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    Why are you using a clue from outside of the prologue to make your case about what is plain in the prologue? ;) Mar 13, 2023 at 17:13
  • @OnlyTrueGod I don't think that is a "clue." I think it is a repeated confirmation of what could be seen an ambiguity in the Prologue. I think calling verse 18 ambiguous requires working hard to ignore what is rather clear so John affirms that several times. Mar 13, 2023 at 18:05
  • Verse 18, with major textual variants, that has famously been debated for centuries in terms of translation, isn't ambiguous?? Mar 13, 2023 at 18:10
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Analysis of Exodus 20:21.

εἱστήκει δὲ ὁ λαὸς μακρόθεν Μωυσῆς δὲ εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν γνόφον οὗ ἦν ὁ θεός Exodus 20:21 Septuaginta (Greek Edition): Alfred Rahlfs, Robert Hanhart.

וַיַּעֲמֹ֥ד הָעָ֖ם מֵרָחֹ֑ק וּמֹשֶׁה֙ נִגַּ֣שׁ אֶל־הָֽעֲרָפֶ֔ל אֲשֶׁר־שָׁ֖ם הָאֱלֹהִֽים׃ פ Exodus 20:21 -Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (Hebrew Bible, Masoretic Text or Hebrew Old Testament), edited by K. Elliger and W. Rudolph of the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart, Fourth Corrected Edition.

The people kept their distance, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was Exodus 20:21 NET

The interlinear of the Construction “...εἰς τὸν γνόφον οὗ ἦν ὁ θεός...” is εἰς τὸν γνόφον (into the thick cloud) οὗ (where when) ἦν ὁ θεός (there was the God). On the presence of God in the dense cloud:

Then spake Solomon, The LORD said that he would dwell in the thick darknessº . I have surely built thee an house to dwell in, a settled place for thee to abide in for ever. 1 Kings 8:12-13 KJV

While he thus spake, there came a cloud, and overshadowed them: and they feared as they entered into the cloud. And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him. Luke. 9:34-35 KJV

The verb ἦν in the context of Exodus 20:21, is explained by 1 Kings 8:12, acquiring an advance in linguistic meaning from “I/he/she/it was” to “dwell”, which is again in agreement with the New Testament Theology regarding of Logos and with Patristic Theology referring to recent Christianity:

That is, that God was within the Anointed One, reconciling the world to himself, not counting the sins of men, and entrusted us with the Logos of Reconciliation. 2 Corinthians 5:19

Thus, the translation of John 1:1-3 reads:

"The Logos dwelt in the beginning, and the Logos dwelt with God, and God dwelt in the Logos.He dwelt in the beginning with God.All the reborn were made by him, and without him nothing that was made was made." John 1:1-3

º (אֶל־הָֽעֲרָפֶ֔ל, Genesis 2:11, Exodus 9:26, Numbers 21:32, 1 Samuel 3:3, 1 Samuel 9:10)

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  • 1
    Interesting as context, but I am having a hard time seeing how this answers the question. Mar 14, 2023 at 18:12
  • I asked a question about this doubt, I hope I did it correctly in English.
    – Betho's
    Mar 14, 2023 at 18:22
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Point of view: I am a Biblical Unitarian, but I'm open to the 'word' in John's prologue referring either to a person or an active power of God, or indeed, just God's word as reflected in the Torah, prophets, and or of course the Christ.

The Gospel of John, not including the prologue

In the Gospel of John, not including the prologue, 'word' or 'words' are used 36 times. 32 of these are singular (89%). All are 'the word(s)' (100%).

It is describing something obviously not related to Jesus or the Father (a crowd's words, for ex.) 8 times (22%).

In the remaining 28 cases, 28 (100%) of these cases are described as something distinct from Jesus. 8:55 is a good example of this.

"but I [Jesus] have known Him [the Father], and His word I keep"

The word is distinct from Jesus, but Jesus keeps it. It is never described as a person (again, excepting the prologue, where it is unclear).

  • J John 2:22 ("when, then, he was raised out of the dead, his disciples remembered that he said this to them, and they believed the Writing, and the word that Jesus said.")
  • 4:37 ("for in this the saying is the true one, that one is the sower and another the reaper.")
  • 4:39 ("because of the word of the woman testifying")
  • J 4:41 ("and many more did believe because of his [Jesus'] word")
  • J 4:50 ("Jesus saith to him, 'Be going on; thy son doth live.' And the man believed the word that Jesus said to him, and was going on")
  • J 5:24 ("He who is hearing my [Jesus'] word, and is believing Him who sent me [the Father], hath life age-during," cf. "in the word was life," 1:4)
  • F 5:38 ("and His [the Father's] word ye have not remaining in you, because whom He sent [Jesus], him ye do not believe.")
  • J 6:60 ("many, therefore, of his disciples having heard [from Jesus], said, 'This word is hard; who is able to hear it?'")
  • J 7:36 ("what is this word that he [Jesus] said, Ye will seek me, and ye shall not find? and, Where I am, ye are not able to come?'")
  • J 7:40 pl ("Many, therefore out of the multitude, having heard the word[s], said, 'This is truly the Prophet;'", YLT for some reason translates it as singular but it's plural in the Greek)
  • J 8:31 ("Jesus, therefore, said unto the Jews who believed in him, 'If ye may remain in my word, truly my disciples ye are, and ye shall know the truth")
  • J 8:37 ("'I have known that ye are seed of Abraham, but ye seek to kill me, because my [Jesus'] word hath no place in you")
  • J 8:43 ("wherefore do ye not know my speech? because ye are not able to hear my [Jesus'] word.")
  • J 8:51 ("If any one may keep my [Jesus'] word, death he may not see -- to the age.")
  • J (crowd repeating) 8:52 ("Abraham did die, and the prophets, and thou dost say, If any one may keep my word, he shall not taste of death -- to the age!")
  • J 8:55 ("but I [Jesus] have known Him [the Father], and His word I keep")
  • J 10:19 pl ("Therefore, again, there came a division among the Jews, because of these [Jesus'] words")
  • J 10:35 ("if them he did call gods unto whom the word of God came")
  • 12:38 ("This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet")
  • J 12:48 ("He who is rejecting me, and not receiving my sayings, hath one who is judging him, the word that I spake, that will judge him in the last day")
  • J 14:23 ("'If any one may love me [Jesus], my word he will keep, and my Father will love him, and unto him we will come, and abode with him we will make")
  • J, F 14:24 x2 pl x1 ("he who is not loving me, my words doth not keep; and the word that ye hear is not mine, but the Father's who sent me")
  • J 15:3 ("already ye are clean, because of the word that I [Jesus] have spoken to you")
  • J 15:20 x2 ("'Remember the word that I [Jesus] said to you, A servant is not greater than his lord; if me they did persecute, you also they will persecute; if my word they did keep, yours also they will keep'")
  • 15:25 ("that the word may be fulfilled that was written in their law -- They hated me without a cause.")
  • F 17:6 ("to me [Jesus] Thou [the Father] hast given them, and Thy [the Father's] word they have kept")
  • F 17:14 ("I [Jesus] have given to them [the disciples] Thy [the Father's] word, and the world did hate them, because they are not of the world, as I am not of the world")
  • F 17:17 ("sanctify them in Thy truth, Thy [the Father's] word is truth")
  • 17:20 ("And not in regard to these alone do I [Jesus] ask, but also in regard to those who shall be believing, through their word, in me")
  • J 18:9 ("that the word might be fulfilled that he [Jesus] said -- 'Those whom Thou hast given to me, I did not lose of them even one.'")
  • J 18:32 ("that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled which he said, signifying by what death he was about to die")
  • 19:8 ("When, therefore, Pilate heard this word, he was the more afraid")
  • 19:13 pl ("Pilate, therefore, having heard this [these] word[s]")
  • 21:23 [21:22 in YLT] ("This word, therefore, went forth to the brethren")

As can be seen from the above exhaustive list of usages outside of the prologue, 'the word' in John's Gospel is overwhelmingly the word of someone - in particular, Jesus (23, 64%) or the Father (5, 14%). It is never a title or identity of Jesus or the Father.

This can be contrasted with another term in the prologue that seems to be identified with Jesus more clearly, 'the light'.

7 He [John the Baptist] came as a witness to testify about the Light, so that through him everyone might believe. 8 He himself [John the Baptist] was not the Light [so the light is something like a man], but he came to testify about the Light. 9 The true Light [Jesus] who gives light to every man was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world[.]

Jesus explicitly claims the 'light' as a title or identifier 3 times in the rest of the Gospel of John, and there are multiple instances where it is arguable it is meant to be applied to him himself, beyond those 3 explicit identifiers.

  • 3:19 x2
  • 3:20 x2
  • 3:21
  • 5:35
  • = 8:12 x2 ("'I [Jesus] am the light of the world; he who is following me shall not walk in the darkness, but he shall have the light of the life.'")
  • = 9:5 ("While I am in the world, I [Jesus] am the light of the world.")
  • 11:9
  • 11:10
  • 12:35 x2
  • 12:36 x3
  • = 12:46 ("I [Jesus] a light to the world have come, that every one who is believing in me -- in the darkness may not remain")

1 John

  • 1:1 ("That which was from the beginning, that which we [the disciples] have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we did behold, and our hands did handle, concerning the word of the life.")
  • 1:10 ("if we may say -- 'we have not sinned,' a liar we make Him [the Father], and His [the Father's] word is not in us.")
  • 2:5 ("whoever may keep his [Jesus'] word, truly in him the love of God hath been perfected")
  • 2:7 ("the old command is the word that ye heard from the beginning")
  • 2:14 ("I did write to you, young men, because ye are strong, and the word of God in you doth remain, and ye have overcome the evil")
  • 3:18 ("My little children, may we not love in word nor in tongue, but in work and in truth!")
  • 5:7 [contested textual variant] ("because three are who are testifying [in the heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these -- the three -- are one"])

1:1 is ambiguous - is 'the word of life' here a person, simply the word of God (as spoken by Jesus), an active power of God, or something else? The experiences recounted (heard, seen, handled) are concerning or about the word, so the phrase has some degree of ambiguity. The pronoun in 'that which was from the beginning', 'that', is neuter, but 'word' in ancient Greek is a masculine noun.

1:10 attributes the word as something of the Father. It is possible this could by referring to Jesus, but seems unlikely. 2:5 buttresses this, where the word now is something of Jesus'.

2:7 treats the word as equivalent to a command - this doesn't support the 'word' being thought of as a person.

The bracketed text in the 5:7 quotation above is almost univocally regarded to be a corruption amongst modern scholars. It is in the YLT, but in almost no modern translation (instead, 5:7 simply says "For there are three that testify" and continues with "Spirit, water, and blood" in the next verse). If it weren't a corruption, it would be evidence corroborating 'the word' as a person, but the likelihood of this seems low.

3 John

  • 1:10 ("because of this, if I may come, I will cause him to remember his works that he doth, with evil words prating against us")

Revelation

The standard belief amongst scholars is that the author of John's Gospel did not write Revelation, so any discussion of 'word' here as directly reflecting the author of the Gospel of John's usage of 'word' has a major asterisk.

The 'word' is attributed to God, and contrasted with the 'testimony' of Christ in Revelation repeatedly.

Revelation 19:13 includes a reference to a rider on a white horse, which seems to refer to Jesus, having the name of the 'the word of God'. This is perhaps the best evidence in the rest of the works considered that 'the word' in the Gospel of John's prologue is intended to refer to a person.

The Gospel of John's prologue

Having a sense of the scope and sweep of the author of John's usage of 'word', we can turn to the prologue, which is the centre of most of the debate.

Arguably, the prologue is poetic or has poetic elements, and that is important to keep in mind when looking at the sentence construction.

  • 1:1 x3
  • 1:14

It is not clear in the prologue whether reference to the 'word' continues after 1:4. 1:10 picks up a masculine personal pronoun without an obvious, nearby referent. It seems there are two obvious interpretive possibilities. Either it refers 6 verses back to 'the word' (not mentioned between 1:4 and 1:10), or it refers to a new, implicit masculine noun (the man who is the light) that is introduced in 1:9.

This leads us to 1:14, 'ho logos sarx egeneto' - literally, 'the word flesh became'. 'Egeneto' is one of the vaguest Greek verbs, and so precisely what it is intended to mean here is up for debate. Compare usage of 'egeneto' at 2:9, where there is a similar sentence, 'to hydor oinon gegenemenon' - literally, 'the water wine having become'. This suggests a transformation of something from one to the other, but if that's our take, it has 2 unfortunate implications. The wine is no longer water (the flesh is no longer the word?), and the water ceases to be (the word ceases to be?). So whatever 'egeneto' is doing at 1:14, its meaning is not obvious. If the prologue is a poetic text, we probably should take this in a loose, poetic sense, whatever it might mean.

Similarly, there is a masculine pronoun at 1:14 ('glory of him/it') and at 1:15 ('John witnesses concerning him/it'). 1:15's pronoun could refer to 'the word', 'the word become flesh' as a distinct concept, or the 'uniquely begotten [monogenes] of the Father'.

'Witness' ('martyrei') is used by John regarding Jesus outside of the prologue. How is 'martyrei' or similar words used re John the Baptist's witness in John's Gospel?

  • 1:7 x2 ("this one came for testimony, that he might testify about the Light [seems to be Jesus, see 1:8], that all might believe through him")
  • 1:8 ("that one [John the Baptist] was not the Light [so the light is something like a man], but that he might testify about the Light [which turns out to be Jesus].)
  • 1:15 ("John doth testify concerning him [Jesus]")
  • 1:19 ("And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent out of Jerusalem priests and Levites, that they might question him, 'Who art thou?'" [then testifies he is not the Christ])
  • 1:32 ("And John testified, saying -- 'I have seen the Spirit coming down, as a dove, out of heaven, and it remained on him [Jesus]")
  • 1:34 ("and I [John the Baptist] have seen, and have testified, that this [Jesus] is the Son of God")
  • 3:26 ("and they came unto John [the Baptist], and said to him, 'Rabbi, he who was with thee beyond the Jordan, to whom thou didst testify, lo, this one [Jesus] is baptizing, and all are coming unto him.'")
  • 3:28 ("ye yourselves do testify to me [John the Baptist] that I said, I am not the Christ, but, that I am having been sent before him [Jesus]")
  • 5:33 ([Jesus speaking] "You have sent to John, and he has testified to the truth." [context is all about Jesus' identity])

Contextually, we can see a strong link re John the Baptist's witness being about Jesus specifically. So the natural referent for 1:15's pronoun is Jesus. The only question remaining is whether it is intended to lock onto 'logos', an implicit noun which is 'logos sarx egeneto', or the 'only-begotten of the Father', or two or all three of these.

It is this grammatical development, at 1:10 and from 1:14 to 1:15 that seems to strongest argument for 'the word' being a person in John's prologue, but it is ambiguous.

Broader NT Context

There is no author in the rest of the NT who explicitly identifies Jesus or the Son as the 'word'. So, it occurs in none of Paul's letters or the letter to the Hebrews. It does not occur in any of the other Gospels. Jesus or the Son is not referred to as such in Acts. It does not occur in the letters attributed to Peter, James, or Jude. Therefore, the broader NT context is evidence against Jesus being identified as the 'word' in the prologue of John's Gospel.

Conclusion

The vast majority of John's usage of 'word' does not mean a person, while there is a small minority that is ambiguous. In his Gospel, it is usually talked about as something related to Jesus or the Father. There is an asymmetry between 'word' and 'light', where light is clearly identified with Jesus 3 times in the Gospel outside of the prologue. 1 John's usages where it might be meant to identify the word as a person are ambiguous, similar to the prologue's usage but without the grammatical considerations as in the prologue. The context outside of John's prologue argues against the referent of 'the word' in the prologue being a person, while the grammatical development at 1:10 and 1:14-15 argues for it. Overall, my best guess is that the author of John's prologue intended for 'word' to mean simply God's word, not a person.

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    While the reality is obvious, apparently most are rendered oblivious to this. The simple explanation is the best - especially when accompanied with unambiguous data from several biblical sources which are perfectly in accord. The other, popular explanation is so complicated no one seems able to say the same as another, and biblical support is basically non existent! +2
    – Steve
    Mar 13, 2023 at 7:18
  • Why did you omit John 1:14 and 1:18? Mar 13, 2023 at 15:48
  • @RevelationLad The answer isn't complete yet. As it says, "In the Gospel of John, not including the prologue". The uses in the prologue itself are famously ambiguous. 1:18? Mar 13, 2023 at 16:22
  • The Word was with God...the Son is with the Father...ambiguous! No wonder you seek clues Mar 14, 2023 at 17:11
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    @RevelationLad 1:1 says 'pros ton theon' (with or more literally, 'towards'), 1:18 is 'in the bosom'. Similar? Yes. The same? Arguably no. Mar 14, 2023 at 17:15

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