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Where is the Truth in the Bible?

by John Hemer MHM

I was having a conversation about the Bible some time ago with a couple of friends. They are totally committed Catholics, catechists, members of the Legion of Mary, daily Mass goers when possible. Talking about the story of the fall in Gen. 3 one of them said to me:

ďSurely you donít expect intelligent people like us to believe all that nonsense about a talking snake and the whole human race being condemned because two people ate a fruit they werenít supposed to, do you? The Bibleís wonderful but we have to face the fact that it isnít all true

I donít claim for one minute that what happened in the garden of Eden is history, but the comment shook me since some time earlier both of those good ladies had been present at a retreat when I spoke for about 45 minutes on the fall and what the story means. I donít believe those things happened historically but with all my heart I believe that the story is true, as true today as when it was written maybe three thousand years ago. So what do we mean when we say that the Bible is true?

The first part of Genesis is by no means the most problematic. Here we are dealing with a symbolic story to explain a deep truth. Jesus used such stories all the time and we have no problem identifying the parables as fiction, but at the same time recognising the deep truth which lies within them. In a slightly different way things such as the proverbs speak a truth which is timeless and which is recognisable to people anywhere. Many people say that the historical truth of the Bible is irrelevant, that it is poetry. They would say that if the Exodus never took place, if the Israelites never went to Egypt in the first place doesnít matter, itís a poetic truth about the freedom of human beings. Just as when the song writers says: ďI would take the stars out of the sky for you, stop the rain from falling if you asked me toÖĒ we have no worries about the cosmos or the weather, when we read of the liberation of a people we should treat it in the same way. Itís not history itís poetry.

Thatís a nice easy way to get round every difficulty. The fact is though that much of the Bible does claim to be history, to be an account of real things that took place in real time Ė as opposed to myths which tell of archetypal events that take place outside of time. The difficult claim of Christianity and Judaism is that it is precisely in history Ė in the real events of our lives that we meet God. His presence is always to be discerned in these things, God is present in what is, not what isnít. Spiritual truth and historical truth are bound together. Many eastern religions claim that the world and matter is an illusion and that salvation consists in being enlightened from this and set free from the bondage to matter. This idea of course does turn up in various forms in Christianity but is always recognised as a heresy. We claim that God made the world quite deliberately, that he sees it as good and that he loved it so much that he was quite prepared to become flesh himself.

In the early Church there were many so called Ďgospelsí which contained the sayings and the teachings of Christ. Very beautiful, inspiring and some of them are much-loved by new age people who like their religion to be just that. But the early Church rejected them and insisted that the truth of Jesus was not just in the beautiful and timeless things he said, but in what he did and in the fact that he was killed and rose from the dead. Many of the early heresies tried in some way to deny the historical truth of Jesus.

For a hundred years or so battle lines have been drawn in western Christianity between those who believe the Bible to be historical and those who donít. From the beginning of the Church her opponents have tried to debunk the Bible as pious nonsense and many of the fathers wrote energetically to defend it Ė although they were not usually defending its literal truth. Things have become more complicated recently in that many scholars within the Church who somehow believe in the Bible have been saying the same sort of things as scholars outside who have been trying to debunk it. Many Christians enrol in Bible courses hoping to have their faith strengthened only to have it taken away from them. On the other side of the argument, millions of Christians claim that every word of the Bible is historically true. So Christians occupy positions diametrically opposed to each other, never mind our opponents.

In the 19th century, Biblical scholars started to examine the texts critically. For centuries people had been aware of problems and contradictions within the text. In the world before the enlightenment and the rise of rationalism this was not a problem, people could live much more easily with paradox. When people started to apply modern scientific rigourism to the Bible, the results were not surprisingly disturbing. So largely in Protestant circles people stared to question the truth of things like the beginning of Genesis, of miracles etc. At the same time Darwin et al were saying very disturbing things about the origins of the human race and about the process of creation. It seemed that the findings of science directly contradicted the claims the Bible made.

In the Catholic Church the response to modern Biblical critical methods went hand in hand with her response the modernist crisis as a whole. In the Protestant world that response was Fundamentalism. The Fundamentals were a series of tracts written between 1909 and 1915 which were designed as a re-statement of central Christian doctrines.

The problem was that the reformation held the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, the Bible is the only guide to truth, and any Christian who sincerely reads the Bible guided by the Holy Spirit can find the truth. That works fine as long as the Bible is completely reliable, but once exegetes started to get to work on it and showed that some of it may not be strictly historical, that some of it is fiction albeit holy fiction, there was absolutely no infallible guide to truth, no way of knowing God's will. The fundamentalists rightly saw that this would lead to a situation where anybody can believe what they like, and the difficult bits of Scripture can either be ignored or explained away. In many ways their fears have come true as far as much main line liberal Protestantism goes. On both moral and doctrinal issues many of the Protestant Churches have simply followed the spirit of the times. Although the Catholic Church at that time reacted in a similar way, the problem was not so acute, since for Catholics the authority to teach and pronounce on these matters lies not with Scripture alone, but with the Church. If the Bible is the only guide for faith, then it is vital that this be true and infallible in every way. This fundamentalist reading of the Bible spread to other parts of the world, and since the sixties with the aid of American missionaries has become extremely widespread. It must be borne in mind that this way of interpretation is a very recent phenomenon, and fundamentalists claim things about the Bible which neither the fathers of the Church, nor Calvin nor Luther would ever have claimed. It is not just that fundamentalists are literalists, many Christians have been of the same mould. For them the Bible's narratives are photographed history. There can be no suggestion that this is the Word of God in human language.

For Fundamentalists the Biblical word is clear and absolute, it is a reality in itself and its meaning is unchanging. It is not relative to the understanding of those who hear it in its varying cultural and historical context. As a result is does not really require interpretation. In a sense fundamentalism is not another kind of interpretation, but a denial of the need and legitimacy of interpretation. It presupposes that the Biblical word can be immediately grasped by all. Unwittingly of course the fundamentalist does interpret, such is the nature of reading and communication. Without realising it, the fundamentalist equates 'the Word of God' with his or her interpretation of it, and absolutises that for all. In the Catholic Church we have only ever claimed that one person is infallible. In fundamentalist Churches, everyone is infallible.

Fundamentalism is a much broader phenomenon that just its Biblical manifestation. There is a Catholic fundamentalism which invests absolute and divine power in a certain medal, in a purported apparition of Our Lady, in a pope or bishop or even a particular Catholic publication. The phenomenon is the same. Groups claim that they and only they are real Catholics, that the rest of the Church is corrupt. Remarkably, some people are willing to stake everything on daily purported locutions of the Blessed virgin in Yugoslavia, and give only the scantiest regard to scripture, and people who do not accept such apparitions are identified as unbelievers, enemies of the truth, even when local Church authority has remained consistently sceptical, and the highest authorities in the Church have advised great caution.

Fundamentalists basically want simple answers to complex questions, questions which theological giants like Thomas Aquinas took volumes to try to answer had in the end called even these answers 'so much straw' Fundamentalists claim to be ultra-orthodox Christians, whereas in fact they take one small piece of Christianity and claim that to be the whole - and often that small piece is far from orthodox in the light of tradition and history. The answers sound good, Jesus is God, we are saved by faith etc. But even here the answers give only one side of the story. Moral questions too are answered in a similar black and white way.             

Because the Bible was written in history, it expresses itself in the historical forms which were current at the time, and which may now seem inappropriate, or at least hard to understand. For some, the doctrine of inspiration means that the Holy Spirit intervened or inspired the minds of the sacred authors in such a way that they were protected not only from theological error, but from geographical, historical or scientific error. This runs into difficulty when we see that certain statements in the Bible run contrary to what modern science knows to be 'true'. Creation in six days is the most obvious one of these.

If we take the incarnation seriously, we must admit that what is true for Jesus is true for God's written word as a whole. Jesus lived in first century Palestine, wore the clothes, spoke the language, ate the food, shared the ideas of that time and place. The historical Jesus would look very strange indeed in a middle-class drawing room in north London today, and unless he did a crash course in English, no one would be able to understand a word he said. The OT wears the clothes of its time and we must be careful not to confuse the outward appearance of the message with its inner core, although that often has value for us today because it is different. The story of the fall in Gen. 3 is basically a way of explaining the presence of evil in the world. If a modern person were to do that he would probably do so in terms of philosophy. The story comes to us from a foreign culture, and yet it is precisely that strangeness which gives it a universal appeal, and enables it to speak in a way that mere philosophy could not.

At the other end of scale from the literalists, we find those who basically trust in science, and where the Bible seems to contradict it, they have explained it away as being the outmoded expression of an ancient people. Often their religion consists of a series of ethical prescriptions which they see as the core of the message - ethical monotheism - and whatever conflicts with that view is deemed irrelevant. In that way the Bible is no longer normative scripture, but an inspirational source book, a stage on the road, but nothing more and certainly not something binding on all.

People at both extremes fall into the same trap of 'canonising' modern scientific method as the only way of approaching truth, both are guilty of a crude rationalism, both are guilty of a complete lack of imagination. The creationist who seeks to disprove the big bang and prove creation in six days is in fact cut from the same cloth as his atheist opponent. He believes the only way to approach truth is empirically. He would claim to be totally open to the word of God, but in fact is totally closed to any understanding of that word in its historical context. - "God's word can only be what I understand it to be now, in my world, if it says six days it can only mean six periods of 24 hours". For him, being a product of the modern world in which rationalism holds sway, the conventions of modern science are the only way to speak about truth, so the Bible, which he knows a priori to be true, must conform to those conventions. The liberal who would leave out the chunks of the Bible which seem outmoded makes the same mistake. He sees that something is false by his own 'empirical' criteria, but never bothers to ask is his criteria are the only ones viable in evaluating truth. He would claim to be totally open to ideas so long as they can be proved, but in fact is totally closed to any ideas which come from beyond his own narrow world.

The best illustration of this is some modern approaches to the Resurrection. Empty tombs and angels and mysterious appearances seem the stuff of myth to many. A popular opinion, around since the 70ís has been that the resurrection was basically an experience which the apostles had. They realised that Jesus was right, that despite all efforts to destroy it, his message would live on. Rather than being devastated by it, his crucifixion gave them courage and in that sense he really was alive, in their hearts and minds, and through the Holy spirit became a real active force in their lives. In order to give voice to this real experience they wrote the resurrection narratives, and particularly in order to show how much he was alive for them they made up the stories of an empty tomb. Such an explanation fitted perfectly into the mindset of the time. It left no loose ends, no embarrassing claims of the miraculous, it made Christianity intellectually respectable, surely any rational educated person would be able to assent to it. But it is the result of (at least) two enormous methodological mistakes. The first is that the New Testament simply does not say this, is at great pains to point out that the Easter happenings were unsolicited, puzzling, frightening at first rather than consoling, and at a certain point they stopped. The second is that if this was, as the NT suggests, something from outside their ordinary experience, something which at first frightened rather than comforted them, something which did not fit in to their world at all, then any effort to understand this in a way that fits so neatly into our world must be missing something, must be betraying the raw force of the apostolic witness. If the Gospels, written thirty plus years after the event, still convey a sense that the apostles did not understand what was happening, who are we to presume that we do? The exponent of such ideas, for all their impressive academic credentials, try to fit the whole thing into their own world, their own understanding, their own thought patterns, when the NT is a great pains to show that this event doesnít fit into any of those things. Or to put it more simply: if you think you have fully grasped the resurrection you can be quite sure that you havenít! There is a certain untidiness about the Easter stories. If our Theology of Easter is any tidier than the New Testament, then we are probably missing something, we have probably tidied it up more than the gospel writers would wish us to.

Many of the modern writers who dismiss the empty tomb and explain  the appearances of the risen Christ in a purely rational way would no doubt claim to be bold new thinkers. In fact, like the characters mentioned above, they are just caught up in the same tired old set of possibilities and will not be drawn beyond them. They tacitly assume that they are superior in intellect and understanding at least to the writers of the New Testament, if not to Jesus himself. Modern scepticism about the resurrection stories masquerades as objectivity and intellectual rigour. Itís really just a refusal to accept that God might do something that they havenít thought of. If we will only accept what we can get our heads around, we are like the Sadducees whom Jesus calls greatly mistaken, or like his many other opponents who cannot imagine anything but the status quo.

We must remember that the Bible is theological history. It is written not merely as annals, but it is always saying something about the relationship of God and Israel. It reads facts from that point of view. Many would suspect its historical accuracy on those grounds. For modern historiography any accounts of events without corroborating documents are very suspect. It is unlikely that there is ever such a thing as purely objective history, just as there is no purely objective, definitive view of a mountain. However an examination of sources shows that the OT is far from being propaganda or even hagiography. To be sure, it judges kindly those kings who encouraged Yahwism and is very harsh on those who were syncretistic or who looked for too many alliances with other nations. That would seem an obvious thing to do from a Yahwist point of view. Yet the books of Samuel and Kings are very balanced even in their judgement of David and Solomon. They praise them, but are also very honest, even scathing about their shortcomings. No political 'line' is canonised in the OT, there are texts which support 'royal' theology and texts which go against it. This would indicate, even from a secular point of view that there is a real desire to be objective about the people involved.

Even the prophets which are basically inspirational writings contain much historical detail. The famous prophesy about the birth of Immanuel in Isaiah 7:10-16 only makes sense against the background of the siege of Jerusalem by the king of Aram. Much of Jeremiah is concerned with historical events and their interpretation. The Bible is grounded in history. It is that which makes the Judeo-Christian tradition unique. The other great religions of the world all contain wisdom and doctrine and direction which was given at a particular place and a particular time, but on the whole could have been given at any other time. From the point of view of its content, the Qur'an could have been revealed at any time in history, its contents are not bound to events in sixth century Arabia. The Buddha received enlightenment under a particular Bow tree at a particular time, but that could have happened at any other time in history without effecting the contents of his enlightenment. The battle between good an evil which is the context of the Bhagavad Gita with the god Krishna as a charioteer on the side of good clearly takes place in mythological time. Apart from Gen. 1-11 this is not true of the OT. While the 'revelations' received by Mohammed were received in time, they claim to come to him from out of time. This is never the case with the Bible.  An oracle like the one from Isaiah was given for a concrete historical purpose. Judaism and Christianity have continually read and re-interpreted it, so it has taken on a life of its own. Isaiah when he spoke it certainly was not looking forward seven hundred years to a stable in Bethlehem.

It is fundamental to our understanding of God that he does not reveal himself 'out of time' but always reveals himself in concrete historical circumstances. Religious conversion is usually occasioned by some concrete circumstance, some dissatisfaction, some personal loss or tragedy or some search. God can sometimes speak to an individual 'out of the blue', in a way that is unsolicited, but usually we find that the person is in some ways ready for that intervention. Revelation does not come to us out of the sky. Rather God speaks to us through our circumstances. The adage: 'grace builds on nature' makes that assumption. Biblical revelation builds on the history, geography, sociology and psychology of Israel, and is given by people whom God inspires to see purpose in seeming random events.

So the idea that history (and geography) in the Bible don't matter, that what matters is the content of the message ignores the very nature of the book, and the very nature of Christian revelation.  The Bible is history and it is inspired history in that it sees the hand of God working through real human events. It is not inspired in the sense that every historical and geographical detail is absolutely accurate.

We can perhaps talk about Ďlevels of truthí in the Bible. What most modern people mean by true (historical) is the most superficial level. It is the idea of truth as newspaper report Ė although so-called Ďobjectiveí newspaper reporting is nearly always coloured in some way. The Bible does contain much of this simple historical truth, but it also goes deeper. The three statements; Peter is tall, Peter walks tall and peter is a giant in his field are all true in different ways. The third statement is untrue if we say all statements about peter must be like the first statement, but a deeper level it expresses the truth about Peter, the deep truth. When Jesus calls Herod a fox, in terms of the first level of truth, of biology, Jesus is simply wrong, Herodís not a fox, heís a human. But of course what he says expresses a much more important truth about Herod and his character.

A great deal has been made of the lack of corroborating evidence for much in the OT. Many biblical minimalists that Abraham Isaac, Jacob, Moses David and many others simply never existed and the stories were made up after the Babylonian exile. The same of course is true for many ancient figures. Much of our standard ancient history is drawn from very sketchy sources. If people automatically distrust the Bible and yet trust Egyptian inscriptions, they exhibit a bias which is most unscholarly and unprofessional. There is a great deal of that in Academia.

We must bear in mind that the Genesis stories are not the exploits of kings and rulers but the stories of nomads trying to find wives and have children and look after their cattle. Why should there be any reference to them anywhere else? In Gen. 37:28 Joseph is sold by his brothers into slavery for 20 silver shekels. That matches precisely the known going price of slaves in the region during the 18th & 19th c. BC as affirmed by documents recovered from ancient Mesopotamia. By the time of the end of exile the price was 90-120. If the story was written then, why does it reflect that earlier price. Did the supposed post-exilic author take that into account, or is it just that is the way the story was handed down through history? In Gen. 21, 26 and 31 Abraham Isaac and Jacob enter into treaties with their neighbours and the form of those treaties match the form and structure of treaties found at Mari and at Tell Leilan in northern Syria which date from the same period. At the same time treaties which date from before or after this period do not match the biblical treaties at all. Not proof, but an indication that what we read in Genesis reflects a historical event, not something made up 1300 years after.

The same sorts of arguments are used against the Exodus being historical. There are no Egyptian inscriptions about it. Remember that official accounts were written to impress, it is unlikely that the fabulously powerful and long-lived Egyptian empire would record the fact that their soldiers all had their buts kicked and their divine ruler was duped by a group of slaves. Slaves on the whole do not make it into the annals of ancient history. Likewise, if the people of Israel were anxious to prove some sort of legitimacy for themselves after the exile decided to invent their own history, it is unthinkable that they would invent their own origins as a slave people. Even in our modern world people tend to keep quiet about embarrassing family history, how much more so in the ANE.

Independent records tell of a group of people called the Hyksos. They were a group of people who seem to have slowly taken power (1725-1575). They were Semites and gradually in the north of Egypt they replaced Egyptians in high administrative office. The rise of Joseph to power and the migration of the Hebrews fits in well with what we know of the Hyksos era. Eventually the pharaoh Amose defeated them and drove them back to Canaan. The  Hyksos occupation was a shameful humiliation for the Egyptians and had a profound effect on the national psychology. Henceforth Egypt was conscious of the perils of the outside world and the dangers of foreign invasion. Much of the Semitic population was not driven out of Egypt, but remained there as a non-integrated ethnic group. The cruelty imposed on the Hebrews in Exodus and their subsequent expulsion fits in perfectly with what we know to be the political climate of the time.

In 1993 a team led by Avraham Biran was excavating the city of Dan in upper Galilee. They found a stele commemorating the victory of the king of Damascus over the king of Israel and the house of David. Here was genuine contemporary inscription, not written by Israelites which bore witness to the existence of David. Until then many scholars had considered David to be about as historical as king Arthur, or simply that the whole story was made up after the Exile. There is much, much more. Archaeology and historical research do not prove the historical literal truth of every word of the OT They do show however that the events and conditions described there are worthy of belief and sometimes seem to have an extraordinary accuracy. In broad lines the is every chance that the events described from Genesis 12 onwards did happen. But, what the Bible is interested in is not just Ďwhat happened?í but rather Ďwhat was going on?í If someone sets fire to a piece of cloth that doesnít mean much. But if that piece of cloth has the stars and stripes printed on in and they do so outside the American Embassy, then it means a great deal.

So even at a superficial level, the Bible contains much more truth and history than many would give it credit. But the Bible is interested in much more than this superficial truth. The events described in the book of job are not true at this superficial level. The book begins: There was once a man in the land of Uz. There never was such a land. If we take literally the wager God makes with the Satan, we get a very strange picture of God. The book is a piece of fiction from start to finish. But any scholar of literature knows that the greatest truths are usually best communicated by story rather than proposition. Job is a completely innocent man, struck with dreadful affliction and we as the reader know what no one else knows, that this is not a punishment but the result of a wager. His friend come along and for 33 chapters preach theological truth at him, telling him that God is just and consistent, that he rewards the good and punishes the wicked and the this is the experience of countless godly people, this is the deep satisfying truth of their religion. Therefore they tell him, if he is in this awful predicament there can only be one possible explanation Ė he must have sinned and if he says he hasnít thatís tantamount to saying that God isnít just. All perfectly orthodox religious thinking and every God-fearing person would agree. Except Job thinks itís all baloney, he hasnít done anything wrong. As the story develops, the Ďcomfortersí become more like brutal interrogators trying to force him to admit his guilt for crimes he knows nothing of. Job refuses to accept this. Eventually God speaks and tells for the friend off for speaking falsehood in his name, and also puts Job in his place. The point of the book is that god cannot simply be fitted into easy ideas, The god the friends preach is not the true God at all, he is an idol. The book is a profoundly disturbing call to re-think our image of God and realise that he is far beyond our simplistic little formulas about him. This is deep Biblical truth, this is a truth Jesus tried to expound. The problem he had with people was that their view of God was too small, too neat. That truth is still being revealed to us today and will continue to be revealed until the end of time. Thatís the deep truth of the Bible. Sometimes something is not true at a superficial level, but nevertheless has a deep, echoing, maturing truth.

Fundamentalists make all sorts of frantic efforts to explain how one can live in a fish for three days.  Of course few can explain how the fish manages to vomit Jonah up at the shore of Nineveh when the city is 400 miles inland. Some do suggest that the coastline has changed. But the book is about religious narrow mindedness. Jonah is told to preach repentance to wicked Nineveh, refuses because he doesnít want them to be saved, arrives there anyway, preaches as badly as he can and ten witnesses their total repentance. Heís so upset at this that he wants to die. Jonah is a caricature of the narrow-minded Jews at his time who donít want God to save anyone else. In fact they are the ones who are running from god and the pagans are much more open to him than they . It speaks as clearly to narrow religious Exclusivism now as it did then. Itís ironic that those who most strongly defend the literal truth of this book are often themselves very narrow minded, convinced than only those born again like themselves are saved and that Godís saving will is as limited as their horizons. Their God is precisely the sort of God the author is lampooning and debunking and exposing as an idol. So in defending the literal truth of the book, they completely close themselves off to the deep divine truth of it. At level one it is not true, at all other levels it is telling us truths about ourselves that we would probably rather not here.

Fundamentalists would argue: ďSurely if god is truth he is going to express his truth in plain language that all can understand.Ē Well, even a superficial reading of the Bible shows that there is much in it which is not plain, but symbolic, poetic imaginative. Our intelligence and literary creativity is part of our sharing the divine life. It does seem strange of a God who endows us with so much verbal, linguistic and poetic creativity to be so uncreative himself in his own word.

Human beings want to stay safe in their own world and call it divine. The Bible always calls us beyond that. If we recognise that we are limited small creatures with a built in desire for the eternity, then if I say the Bible is true, than that truth must draw me beyond my limited world towards the eternal,. If I use the Bible simply to keep my world safe, then I must have cut myself off from some of its truth. If I have a detailed road atlas of England and use it only to find my way around Berkshire, Iím simply ignoring most of it.

From beginning to end the Bible is engaged in a project of debunking false idea about God and replacing them with the image of the true God. Unlike the gods of Israelís neighbours, the true God is not simply part of the process of nature, he is not in rivalry with any other god or with the human race, he does not simply support the present political regime Ė the men of God called prophets are the most trenchant critics of kings and rulers. He has chosen Israel Ė but then just about every other nation believes the same about itself. For Israel however this choice is not exclusive, God loves the other nations to and wants Israel to be light, and example for them. The great struggle in the OT is to get the people to understand that God is not just the projection of their hopes, not just the one who does their bidding, not just the one who will rubber-stamp their pedestrian ambitions. He is different, transcendent Holy. We say the Bible is revelation. We mean that it tells us things about god and about ourselves that would could never guess or discover in a million years. These things are sometimes beautiful, consoling and inspiring, sometimes disturbing, things we would rather not know.

The OT could be compared to a piece of self-assembly furniture. All the bits seem to be there, but somehow they donít come together. The final piece which makes sense of it all is Jesus. All the things the OT has been trying to do become clear and visible in Jesus. We see even during his life how people try to manipulate him and get him to do their biding and how he resists it. The NT shows us that it is only in following his lead, in obeying him that we can know the true God. The same holds with the scriptures. We are never above the scriptures, we always stand under their judgement, not vice versa. Many modern Ďliberalí scholars assume they are superior to them. Many modern fundamentalists assume the scriptures are as dull, unimaginative and dogmatic as they are. Historical criticism is to scripture what anatomy is to the practise of medicine. Scholars of literature examine Shakespeare, take him to bits but always realise they are dealing with someone far more brilliant than themselves. The same is true a fortiori of the Bible.

©; John Hemer MHM 2003

This version: 15th May 2003

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