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No. 107Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study ProgramSeptember 2003

  - The Morning of Jesus' Resurrection in the Light of Biblical Inerrancy  by Brian W. Harrison
  - On the Historicity of the Events of Easter Morning  by John F. McCarthy


by Brian W. Harrison

The four separate Gospel accounts of the greatest morning in human history – the "first day of the week" after Jesus' crucifixion – present some complexities and apparent discrepancies which at first sight might seem difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with the Catholic dogma of the Bible's divine authorship and inerrancy. Vatican Council II reaffirms this age-old point of Catholic faith, teaching that since "all that the sacred authors . . . affirm must be held as affirmed by the Holy Spirit," it follows that their books "teach firmly, faithfully and without error" the truth which God wanted set down in writing for the sake of our salvation (Dei Verbum, #11). It has been suggested, for instance, that either Matthew or John must be in error regarding the first appearance of the angel(s) at the tomb, and of the Risen Lord Himself, to Saint Mary Magdalene.

I hope to show in this brief study that, in fact, one can compile a coherent account of the first events following Our Lord's Resurrection, compatible with all four Gospel accounts and with our Catholic faith in the integral truth of Sacred Scripture. First, however, we will need to recall certain important hermeneutical norms which derive from the fact that the literary genres of the Gospels, while fully historical in the sense that all that their authors affirm as having happened really did happen, should not be judged and interpreted by the canons of modern academic historiography in matters such as completeness, precision of detail and chronological sequence.

First, the inerrancy of Scriptural history does not require a complete account of the relevant events from any single author. If one or other biblical account omits certain incidents, even without any indication to the reader as to how much time, if any, passed between a given event and the next one mentioned, that should not be considered an error. This is closely linked to another hermeneutical norm. The integral divine authorship of Scripture requires us to believe that everything the human author affirms (or strictly implies) by his words is true. It does not, however, require us to hold that everything the human author thought about the events he relates was necessarily true. Thus, if a certain event is related in such a way that makes it seem probable that the human biblical author was unaware of certain factual points which we learn about from other sources (biblical or extra-biblical), so that there was apparently an impression in his mind that no such fact occurred, we should by no means concede that such a mistaken, but unstated, mental presumption or impression would constitute an error in Scripture itself.

Let us take a simple example. Luke (24: 4) and John (20: 12) tell us that two angels appeared in the empty tomb of the Lord, while Matthew (28: 2-5) and Mark (16: 5) mention only one angel. Neither of the latter two evangelists says there was only one angel, so there is clearly no contradiction here. However, some older biblical commentators, in harmonizing these accounts and pointing out that that there were in fact two angels at the tomb, felt it necessary at the same time to postulate (or imagine) possible reasons why Matthew and Mark, while knowing there were in fact two angels, decided to mention only one. Now this, it seems to me, is a case of ‘setting the bar too high’. To repeat, we are not required as Christians and Catholics to believe that everything the human authors of Scripture may have thought about the events they were relating was true (free from error); only what they actually wrote down, understood, of course, according to what they themselves meant to affirm in each instance of that writing. So if the omission of the second angel by Matthew and Mark naturally suggests that they probably hadn't heard about him in the version they received of the events of Easter Sunday morning, and so presumed (though without affirming or strictly implying that presumption in writing) that there was only one angel, this should not cause orthodox Christians to lose any sleep. I think Catholic apologists can readily admit that such a mistaken presumption may well have been in the mind of Matthew and Mark – although we do not know this for certain – since such a mistake would not in any case militate against the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.

What follows is a suggested reconstruction of the events of that glorious morning, based on the joint witness of the four Gospels, each of whose human authors presents a partial account of what happened. Even if one or more of them did not have the complete story exactly right in his mind, each Evangelist was nonetheless preserved by the charism of divine inspiration from writing down anything that was actually false. I shall focus here principally on the various appearances to the women, and will not enter exhaustively into all the other details. It should also be added that no claim is being made here that what follows is the only possible reconstruction of the events that fits the Gospel data. Others may (and some have in fact) suggested a version which differs in some detail or other from mine, while still remaining compatible with the integral truth of the biblical texts.

1. There are four women who go to the tomb around sunrise on that Sunday morning. Possibly there are even more (although a large number would seem improbable), since Luke (24: 10) says that certain women other than the three he mentions by name also subsequently take part "with them" in reporting the morning's wondrous events to the apostles. The four who are identified in one or more Gospels are Mary Magdalene, ‘the other Mary’ (Mt. 28: 1) who is in fact the mother of James (Mk. 16: 1), Salome (Mk. 16: 1) and Joanna (Lk. 24: 10). It is worth pointing out here that while Matthew mentions just the first two women named above, he may or may not have thought they were the only two. Perhaps he was certain about those two on the basis of his own memory of that day, while remaining unsure as to whether any other women went to the tomb with them.

Moreover, it is perfectly plausible to hypothesize that these four (or more) Galilean women do not all arrive at the tomb at exactly the same moment. If they have not all been staying in the same house while in Jerusalem, they may well have simply agreed the previous night to meet around dawn at the tomb in order to complete the customary burial procedures. If the two Marys had gone together and arrived without any other women present at that moment, that may have been the part of the total testimony that reached Matthew and remained in his memory. (Even though John mentions only Mary Magdalene by name, he knows there was at least one other woman with her when she discovered the empty tomb, because he tells us that in her initial report to him and Peter she says, "we do not know" where Jesus' body is now located.) This hypothesis of two, or even more, successive arrivals of the women could also explain why, according to John’s account, it was "still dark" when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb (20: 1), while Mark (16: 2), speaking of the moment when Salome (at least) had also arrived, states that the sun had already risen (or was rising, according to some variants). In any case, it is important that Matthew certainly does not affirm that the two women he names were the only two to visit the tomb. Neither does any other Evangelist, with respect to the woman/women he mentions. (No single Evangelist mentions all four women.)

2. After at least three of the women reach the empty tomb and find the stone rolled away, all of them except Mary Magdalene soon experience the apparition of the two angels (perhaps in two separate moments), who announce to them the ‘Good News’ of the Lord's resurrection. For her part, Mary has not waited long enough at the tomb to see the angels and hear their message. She has been so disturbed by the sight of the stone being rolled away, that, presuming a tomb robbery to have taken place, she separates herself instantly from "the other Mary" (and her other companions, if any) and hastens off to inform Peter and John (Jn. 20: 1-2).

3. Meanwhile, the other women, having heard in amazement and confusion the angelic message, quickly leave the tomb with a mixture of fear and joy (Mt. 28: 9), but do not, at that moment, go to tell the male disciples (Mk. 16: 8), as the angel has instructed them to do. This is because they are at first just too stunned and overwhelmed, both by the unexpected and shocking emptiness of the tomb, and by the supernatural vision of the angels with their stupendous message. Probably they anticipate – correctly, as it turns out – that Peter and the apostles, being Jewish males burdened with typical prejudices against the credibility of ‘mere’ women, will in any case react with incredulity to their astonishing report. So in all probability these other three (or more) women return to one of the houses of their Jerusalem friends or relatives from whence they had set out a little while earlier. There they will regain their composure and think about what to do next.

4. Now (keeping in mind what we said about possible errors in the minds, not in the written words, of the human biblical authors), it seems entirely probable that Matthew did not know of this initial response of silence and inaction which Mark tells us about, and that he thought or presumed that the women went immediately to tell Peter and the Twelve what had happened at the tomb. This is the impression one would naturally receive from Mt. 28: 8, which says, literally, "And going out quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy, they ran to tell his disciples". But note well that this passage does not state, or strictly imply, that the women's running to the disciples took place immediately after their hasty exit from the tomb area. That seeming immediacy is, quite literally, just an impression we receive from the way Matthew words his account. But even if in fact that idea (which we know from Mark's clear affirmation to be mistaken) was indeed in Matthew's mind, the integral truth of what he actually wrote under divine inspiration remains intact provided only that: (a) the women did in fact leave the tomb hastily, with the emotions Matthew mentions; and (b) after that (but not necessarily immediately) they did indeed run to tell the disciples of their experiences at the tomb. Matthew has ‘contracted’ or ‘telescoped’ a sequence of events into a briefer account, but without stating anything false.

5. Probably at the same time that the three other women who had come to the tomb with Mary Magdalene are gathered not far away, discussing what to do next (see #3 above), the latter returns to the tomb accompanied by Peter and John. The incidents recorded in Jn. 20: 3-17 now take place: Peter and John inspect the tomb, and the latter "believes" (v. 8); they then return home; Mary, left alone weeping at the tomb, sees for the first time the angels who have already been seen by the other women; and finally she meets the Risen Jesus Himself. This is in fact the first appearance of the Risen Lord to anyone, as is corroborated by Mark (16: 9).

6. At this point we need to consider another apparent contradiction. John's account (20: 12-13) makes it almost certain1  that Mary Magdalene’s first encounter with the angels occurs at this moment, when she is alone; for it is clear that she still, as yet, has no suspicion of the Lord's resurrection – a fact which, as we know from the other Gospels, has already been announced by the angels to the other women. But it might seem from Matthew (28: 1, 5-6) and Mark (16: 1, 5-6) that Mary Magdalene was in fact with those other women when they saw the angel(s) and, that she heard together with her companions the stupendous news that the Lord had risen. But once again, we have here instances of impressions left by the biblical texts, which might indeed reflect what was in their human authors’ minds, but which are by no means affirmed or strictly implied by what they wrote. Let us keep in mind two points here: (a) We have noted in #1 above that Matthew nowhere affirms that Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’ were the only women who went to the sepulchre early that morning; and (b) after mentioning those two in v. 1, and in referring to the angel's appearance and words a few verses later, Matthew simply says that this angelic message was addressed to "the women" (vs. 5). Now, we would certainly have a problem on our hands if he had said "the aforesaid women", or "the women already named", or "those two women". For these expressions, or other possible ones to the same effect, would affirm or rigorously imply that Mary Magdalene was indeed one of those women who saw and heard the angel in that first moment. But in view of (a) and (b), it cannot be said that Matthew’s Gospel text – whatever may or may not have been in his own mind – teaches that Mary Magdalene was among "the women" who saw the angel(s) immediately on their first arrival at the empty tomb. The inerrancy of Matthew's affirmations about "the women" remains intact provided that the other women who had by that time arrived at the tomb (i.e., at least "the other Mary", Joanna and Salome) did in fact see and hear the angelic manifestation (v. 5), make a hasty exit from the tomb (v.8), and then (a little later on in the morning), run to tell the Apostles what had happened (v. 9).

Similar observations can be applied to Mk. 16. After having mentioned three women by name, including Mary Magdalene, in v. 1, Mark goes on to use the word "they" in several subsequent verses, including the statement that "they" saw a "young man" (angel) in the tomb who announced to them the resurrection (vv. 5-7). Mark may well have assumed that Mary Magdalene was still there with the other women at that point, but what he says in writing, using just a third-person plural verb which comes out as a simple, unemphatic "they" in English, does not strictly affirm or imply this. Mark does not say that "all three of those women" heard and saw the angel – or words to that effect. Nor does he mention Mary Magdalene by name again at this point, or use any other form of expression that would make it undeniable that he specifically meant to include her among those who saw the angel and received his message. Here we need to remember another accepted point in the orthodox Catholic theology of biblical inspiration and inerrancy, namely, that truth, in Scripture as in ordinary human discourse, does not always have to equate with precision or exactitude. In other words, just as in ordinary life we often take approximate expressions to count as true, rather than erroneous, in circumstances when precision in points of detail is not essential, so too this principle can apply to the Bible, which is, after all, a ‘word’ which is truly human as well as divine. In the case before us, Mark's statements in 16: 1-8, wherein, after naming three women, he goes on to say that "they" did certain things, can fairly be considered approximately and sufficiently true provided that the majority of those women (two out of three, or three out of four if we take Luke's testimony into account) really did what the Evangelist ascribes to them as a group.

7. John (20: 18) and Mark (16: 10) both tell us that after she sees the Risen Lord, Mary Magdalene goes to tell the disciples this stupendous news. However, they give us absolutely no further details: for instance, whether she does so immediately or after a certain interval, or whether she goes alone or in the company of the other women. Neither does Luke shed any further light on those specific questions when he simply records in 24: 10 that Mary Magdalene is one of those women who inform the Apostles about the events at the empty tomb. Nevertheless, from the standpoint of defending the integral truth of the Gospel texts, none of these different alternatives presents any great problem. It is entirely possible that Mary wanted to share this glorious news of having seen and talked to the Risen Lord first of all with those who would be most likely to believe her – her female companions! There is no reason to suppose it would have been difficult for her to locate them at that moment: the logical place to go would be their Jerusalem lodgings, from whence the women had set out earlier that morning (see #3 above). If she had burst in on them there with her astonishing report, that would explain very well why the whole group, newly fired-up by Mary Magdalene’s joyous news, would have set out running (as Matthew tells us in 28: 8) to tell the apostles about the sum total of all their experiences so far that morning. In that scenario, Mary would have been one of those women who then encountered the Risen Lord on their way to inform the disciples (28: 9-10) – as Matthew seems to have presumed she was. If, however, she went independently to Peter and the Eleven before rejoining the other women, so that their encounter with the Risen Jesus did not include her, then the hermeneutical observations we have already made in the first paragraph of #6 above would apply equally here, in order to defend the inerrancy of Matthew's text.

8. Only one apologetic problem seems to remain in reconstructing the sequence of events on that Easter Sunday morning in a way that does justice to the inerrancy of all four Gospel accounts. From what we have said so far, it is clear (cf. Jn 20) that by the time Mary Magdalene and the other women have reached Peter and the apostles with the news of the angelic appearances and the apparitions of the Risen Lord, Peter has already been to the tomb and seen for himself its emptiness (except for the linen cloths). However, Luke mentions Peter’s visit to the tomb in 24: 12, after he has related the arrival of the women with their amazing – and as yet more or less incredible – report to the apostles (24: 9-11). To solve this difficulty, we simply need to recall the principles we have already appealed to in explaining other problem passages in these resurrection accounts. It may or may not be the case that Luke thought or presumed that Peter's visit took place only after he had heard the reports of miraculous events from the group of women who came to him and the other apostles. But what the Evangelist says in writing does not affirm nor strictly imply that sequence of events, even though, undeniably, it leaves the reader with an impression to that effect. Verse 12 does not include any unambiguous expressions placing Peter's visit to the tomb within a time-sequence that would place it clearly either before or after he hears the report of the women. Luke simply says here, after telling us of the women's report and the apostles’ incredulity at it, that "Peter, however, arising, ran to the sepulchre, . . . etc." Note the absence here of any word indicating the time when Peter did so, relative to the events mentioned in previous verses. So the integral truth (or inerrancy) of Luke's text (not necessarily of Luke's private thoughts or assumptions) remains intact provided that Peter did indeed arise and run to inspect the sepulchre at some moment during the series of astonishing events that took place on the first Easter Sunday. And we know from John's Gospel that Peter's visit (together with that of the "Beloved Disciple"), in fact took place at an earlier hour, very soon after the group of women first arrived at the tomb around dawn.

This short essay has been an exercise in harmonizing different biblical accounts of the same series of events. Unfortunately, many exegetes of recent decades scoff at the very attempt to do this. They claim that such "concordism" is no longer necessary for Catholics, since Vatican Council II – we are confidently assured – recognizes that the Bible is not in any case guaranteed to be free from error in its historical and other supposedly "non-salvific" affirmations. Among various considerations demonstrating that this is a distortion of the Council's teaching are the various references, in its own footnote #5 to DV #11, to Pope Leo XIII's foundational encyclical on biblical studies, Providentissimus Deus (1893). In one of these passages of the encyclical (referenced in this footnote as ‘EB 127’), this very procedure of careful study with a view to harmonizing apparent contradictions in Scripture is expressly recommended to biblical scholars. For Leo XIII praises here the scholarship of those great Fathers and Doctors who "labored with no less ingenuity than devotion to harmonize and reconcile those many passages which might seem to involve some contradiction or discrepancy." Thus does Vatican Council II, rightly understood, exhort us to follow in their footsteps.


1. A well-known Protestant defender of biblical inerrancy, Dr. Gleason L. Archer, hypothesizes that Mary Magdalene was still with the other women at the time of the initial appearance of the angels and their announcement of the Resurrection. But why, then, does she not display even the slightest inkling of what the angel(s) told her when she later returns to the tomb after informing Peter and John of its emptiness? Archer's attempted explanation is as follows: "She apparently had not yet taken in the full import of what the angel meant when he told her that the Lord had risen again and that He was alive. In her confusion and amazement, all she could think of was that the body was not there; and she did not know what had become of it" (Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1982], pp. 348-349). I find this very implausible, but each reader can judge for himself. One suspects that Archer has resorted to this explanation only because, in not accepting the kinds of Catholic hermeneutical norms we are employing in this essay, and thus "setting the bar too high" in his expectations regarding inerrancy, he thinks that Matthew’s Gospel will be in error unless Mary Magdalene was one of "the women" he mentions in 28:5.


by John F. McCarthy

In his article, "The Morning of Jesus' Resurrection in the Light of Biblical Inerrancy," Brian Harrison gives an interesting presentation of some principles of interpretation for the solving of apparent contradictions between the texts of the four Evangelists in narrating the angelic appearances to the holy women on the first Easter morning. And he makes a realistic and thought-provoking reconstruction of the events that took place. As a new technique he suggests that sometimes, to resolve an apparent contradiction, it becomes necessary to consider that, while what the human author affirms is always to be taken as historically true, the integral divine authorship of Sacred Scripture, "does not, however, require us to hold that everything the human author thought about the events he relates was necessarily true" (above, page 1). For instance, in reconciling the affirmations of Matthew 28:2ff. and Mark 16:5ff. that an angel appeared to the holy women, with the affirmations of Luke 24:4 and John 20:12 that there were two angels, we are inclined to assume that Matthew and Mark mistakenly thought (even though they did not write) that only one angel had in fact appeared (above, page 2). Father Harrison is certainly right in pointing out that the inerrancy of the biblical text pertains to what was actually written and not to what the inspired writer may or may not have thought about what he was writing, but this recourse to what the writer may have erroneously thought in order to defend the historicity of the text looks a bit like a last resort. In difficulties of this kind, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church strove to find other solutions, realizing that the seeming contradictions presenting themselves over the ages to the minds of interpreters of the sacred text could be rooted in their own unawareness of explanations that are waiting there to be found, or in ignorance of certain facts or circumstances pertaining to the events narrated, or in the presence of deeper meanings underlying the sacred text, indicated by the choice of certain elements and the omission of others and by the very selection and arrangement of the words.

In the case of the appearance of one angel or two, it is entirely likely that we are dealing with separate instances. In Matt 28:2 we read that an angel descended from heaven and rolled back the stone that was sealing the tomb and sat upon it. Now this took place outside of the tomb. And again in Mark 16:5 we read that Mary Magdalene and Mary (the mother) of James and Salome, "entering into the sepulcher, saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed with a white robe, and they were astonished." St. Augustine observes that the "sepulcher" mentioned here would have consisted of a burial room carved out of the rock and an enclosed garden in front of it. Mark is here describing the same scene as that in Matt 28:2ff. The women, upon entering into the garden, saw an angel ("young man") seated outside of the tomb on the stone that had been rolled over to the right side (cf. Mk 16:5). But Luke 24:4 and John 20:12 are speaking about the two angels that appeared inside the tomb (see Augustine, de Cons. Ev., 3:23, quoted in Aquinas, Catena Aurea, at Matt. 28:10).

There is another seeming conflict between these two accounts. Matt 28:8 narrates that the women, after the angel had told them that Jesus was risen from the dead, "departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples," while Mk 16:8 records that the women, after they had heard these words from the angel, "went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." But let us return to what Matt 28:2-4 conveys. He recounts that "there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat upon it." As the women were approaching the tomb, did they feel the earth shake beneath them, did they see and hear the stone being rolled away, did they see the guards, out of fear, lying there like dead men? It would seem so from the account. This would be enough to cause the women to flee from the tomb with trembling and astonishment. Is Mark saying that the women, after they heard the reassuring words of the angel "not to be afraid" because Jesus was risen from the dead, nevertheless, fled in fear and trembling? Or is he saying that the women, not yet having heard the angel speak, but having only seen and heard this frightening act of heavenly power, fled in fear and trembling?

It seems from the plain reading of the text of Mark that the women saw the angel and heard his reassuring words before they fled, but, in this highly compressed account, the voice of the angel may have come later. If they did hear the angel at this time, what he told them did not register yet in their minds in such manner as to instill a belief in the Resurrection of Jesus. But before they fled, Mary Magdalene for one was able to ascertain that the body of Jesus was no longer in the tomb. And she had the composure to run and tell the Apostles that the body of Jesus was gone from the tomb (John 20:2). After this, returning to Father Harrison's reconstruction of the events, Peter and John ran to the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying therein (John 20:4-5). At least by then the guards had revived and left the tomb (Matt 28:11). In the meanwhile the two companions of Mary Magdalene had been joined away from the sepulcher by some other holy women, and this group now returned to the sepulcher. It would seem from the plain reading of Lk 24:3-4 that they went directly into the tomb and therein encountered the two angels in dazzling apparel. But one could also conjecture, in keeping with what has been said in the previous paragraph, that at this point the second group of women heard for the first time the words of the angel seated outside of the tomb on the stone that had been rolled back. This angel would at this second visit have told them not to be afraid and would then have led them into the tomb, where they continued to see him together with another angel standing at the head and at the foot of the place where the body of Jesus had been laid. It is this same angel who would have spoken to them again in the tomb (cf. Aquinas, Catena Aurea, at Matt 28:2) and told them what is recorded in Lk 24:6-7. According to this conjecture, soon after the second group of women stepped away from the sepulcher, Mary Magdalene returned and had her encounter with the two angels in the tomb and then with Jesus in the garden in front of the tomb. Mary Magdalene would then have met the other women, either away from the garden or possibly even in the garden before she departed, "and they went out quickly from the sepulcher (garden) with fear and great joy, running to tell his disciples" (Matt 28:8).

The women's experience of fear together with joy is noted in Matthew's narration of the running of the women to tell the disciples that the Lord was truly risen. And this is not difficult to accept. St. Jerome, as quoted in the Catena Aurea at Matt 28:8 avers: "A twofold feeling possessed the minds of the women, fear and joy: fear at the greatness of the miracle [of the Resurrection]; joy in their desire for Him who was risen." But this may have been a different kind and degree of fear than that experienced by the women from feeling the earth quake beneath their feet, seeing and hearing the rolling back of the stone, and seeing the guards lying stunned on the ground like dead men.

The first appearance of Jesus after his Resurrection was to Mary Magdalene in the garden (Mark 16:9; John 20:14). Matt 28:9 recounts that, as the women were going to tell the disciples that Jesus was risen from the dead, Jesus hailed them and spoke reassuringly to them. This is regarded by some of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church as the second appearance of Jesus after He rose from the dead. St. Thomas Aquinas observes at this place in the Catena Aurea that the Greek word for "hail" signifies joy, and he goes on to say, regarding the consoling words of Jesus addressed to them in this encounter, that "as the first woman [Eve] heard a curse [from God], so these women heard a blessing." Several Fathers of the Church saw these experiences of the women as a replay in reverse of what happened originally to Eve. St. Jerome opines that women ought first to have heard from Jesus the joyful greeting "so that the curse of the woman might be removed in these women." And St. Peter Chrysologus avers that it was as though Jesus was saying to them: "Woman, now that you are healed, return to man and persuade to faith him whom you once persuaded to treachery" (Catena Aurea at Matt 28:9).

In these comments I have maintained that the angelic appearance recorded in Matt 28:ff and Mark 16:ff. was a separate instance from the angelic appearances noted in Luke 24:4 and John 20:12. And I, like Father Harrison, have hypothesized a chronology of the Easter morning events that, without contradicting what is said by the Evangelists, goes somewhat beyond the plain reading of the text. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church, in shedding much light upon these happenings, do not interpret the order of these events in the way that I have suggested as a possibility, and so neither do I claim that my suggested possible order of the events is necessarily correct or is necessarily the one that best corresponds to what the Evangelists tell us really and historically took place.

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