Why Read Your Bible Pt. 6 - Questions of Biblical Cononicity

Charles Harris

A serious reader of the Bible sooner or later comes to the question, “Through what process did these sixty-six book come together to make up the Scriptures?” He may read or hear of the fact that other publications of a similar nature existed at the time these were selected. Why were they rejected for inclusion in the Bible while the others were chosen? Who made the decision? On what basis did they decide? In his search for answers to these questions he would like to find assurances that what found its way into the canon of Scripture contains the genuine Word of God. The trustworthiness of the Bible has everything to do with whether or not one chooses to spend his time in reading it.

This article first discusses the nature of the canon and the need for establishing it. It then traces the development in the selection of its books for both the Old and New Testaments. This includes observations on the criteria for including the various books in the biblical canon. After that comes information on the texts of Scripture, including the autographs, manuscripts, and translations. Finally, arguments appear to support the conclusion that the process in the formation of the canon has long since been a completed matter.

The Nature of the Canon

The Greek word kanon refers to “that which measures.” Theologically, the term is used to refer to books included in the Bible. The idea of a standard, that by which people measure things, is inherent in the term. The word Canon was used with reference to Scripture by the Council of Laodecia in A.D. 363 and by Anathanasis in 365.

Canon in English comes through kanon in Greek and refers to a measuring rod, rule or norm. With this in mind, Spruol declares, “‘Norm of norms and without norm.’ With these words the historic church confessed her faith in the authority of Sacred Scripture.” He equates that expression with that of attaching King of kings and Lord of lords to Jesus.

The Need for the Canon

The existence of other publications of a similar yet spurious nature brought about the need to distinguish books which bore the marks of having been genuinely inspired by the Holy Spirit from the others. The Bible itself contains a reference to no less that fifteen books named in its pages yet not included in its contents.

biblewithhandsprayingA group of writings came into existence from 200 B. C. to A. D. 100 to which the title “apocrypha” was attached. The word means “hidden” or “concealed.” The books total fourteen in number. Jewish scholar never received them as being on a par with canonical writings. Some Catholics through the years rejected them as belonging in the Bible, such as Jerome. However, they were accepted by the Roman Church at the Council of Trent in A.D. 1546 and the Vatican Council of 1870. They were included in later copies of the Septuagint, the Greek Version of the Old Testament. Protestants since the Reformation have rejected the works in the Apocrypha. Their reasons include the fact that they contain historical inaccuracies. They also have teachings at variance with other Scripture, including justifying suicide, allowing the use of wrong means to right ends as well as promoting superstition and magic. Writers of the New Testament make no reference to the contents of any of the books of the Apocrypha.

Edwards declares simply, “The fourteen books of the Apocrypha have never been accepted by Protestant Christians as a part of the Bible.” He states further, “They were never part of the inspired Jewish Scriptures.” Concerning books in the second part of the Bible, he explains that early believers appear to have unofficially agreed to “. . . the principle for a book’s forming part of the New Testament canon was that the writer had to be an apostle, or writing under the direction of an apostle, or had to be an eyewitness and companion of our Lord in the sense of Acts 1:21-22. All of the twenty-seven books of our New Testament meet this requirement and not one of the false writings does.”

Another collection of “sacred” books wears the title Pseudepigrapha. The name means simply “false writings.” Their main trademark is that each of them claims to have been written by a biblical person, though falsely so. These include books supposedly written by Enoch, Baruch, and Adam. No one has endeavored to make a legitimate claim for the inclusion of these books in the Bible. Much of their material is apocalyptic in nature.

The Old Testament Canon in New Testament Times

The Old Testament Canon in New Testament times included the same thirty-nine books as are there today. The apocryphal books were never a part of the Jewish Canon. They found their way into the Bible by way of the Septuagint and later versions.

Collected Informally:

With the exception of the apocryphal works, these books were accepted immediately upon their production by the people of God. Green writes, “Each individual book of an acknowledged prophet of Jehovah, or anyone accredited as inspired by Him to make known His will, was accepted as the Word of God immediately on its appearance. . . . It was this which made them canonical. The spiritual profit found in them corresponded with and confirmed the belief in their heavenly origin.”

This acceptance led to the fact that such works were at first collected informally. The Books of the Old and New Testaments were probably first collected in a general and somewhat natural way as God directed the affairs of men to that end. To illustrate, in Moses’ day the Ten Commandments were kept in the Ark of the Covenant (Exod. 40:20). They were still there in David’s time (1 Kings 8:9). The laws of Deuteronomy were given to the sons of Levi to be kept by the side of the Ark (Deut. 31:9, 24-26). Some proverbs were collected by Hezekiah’s men (Prov. 25:1). A copy of the lost Book of the Law was found during a cleansing of the temple in Josiah’s time (2 Kings 22:8ff). Ezra read in the book, in the law of God (Neh. 8:8ff). The Samaritans had the Pentateuch by 432 B.C. The Septuagint was translated in 250-150 B.C.

Such informal criteria as below determined a book’s acceptance and inclusion in the collection:

1. Universality, acceptance by God’s people in general
2. Prophetic origin, including authorship by a recognized prophet of Jehovah
3. Personal inspiration, profit, benefit, in accordance with truths previously learned about God

Just the nature of the material in a book indicated whether or not it is inspired by God. By way of comparison, in the Book of Mormon the Lord instructed the brother of Jared to build light weight barges to be used in an important voyage of His people. They were to be totally enclosed, bottom, sides, top, and with a door in each, “tight like a dish.” The servant of the Lord protested that those inside the crafts could not see how to steer their boats, nor would they long have air to breathe. In response the Lord instructed him to put a hole in both the top and the bottom of each boat so that air could come in! (Ether 2:16-20). Such instructions appear much different from what one would expect of an all-wise God.

Canonized Formally:

The passing of time led to a more formal consideration of what books do and do not belong in the canon. However, as Green observes, “. . . the public action which further attested, though it did not initiate, their canonicity, followed in the wake of popular recognition of their divine authority. . . . The canon does not derive its authority from the church, whether Jewish or Christian.” Thus inspiration preceded canonization!

Theissen says that the Old Testament canon was completed by the Fifth Century B.C. by Ezra and the members of the Great Synagogue, based on the work of two Jewish scholars of medieval times and Josephus. Some point to the Council of Jamnia in A.D. 90 as settling the question of Old Testament canon. However, the evidence seems to indicate that the matter was settled informally before that late date. McKowen writes, “Prior to this (Council of Jamnia, A.D. 90) the canon had been socially closed by usage and practice . . . .” Dockery declares, “It is probable that the Old Testament Canon was settled by the time of Jesus.”

The Formation of the New Testament Canon

From the beginning believers in Christ possessed a Bible, the Old Testament, which they brought with them from Judaism into the Church. To this in time they added apostolic writings, which they considered equal to what they already had, to form the completed Bible. They spoke of the older writings as the Law and the Prophets or simply the Law. To the completed collection of Scriptures they gave the title the Law, the Gospels, and the Apostles, or just the Law and the Apostles.

Collected Informally:

As with the Old Testament canon, it seems that at first the writings of the New Testament were collected informally. This was long before any kind of formal action was taken in determining the canon. As Dockery declares, “We must not think that the church determined or defined the books in the church’s canon. In reality, the church did not create the canon, but received the canon that God created for His people. The church recognized the canonical books as spiritually superlative writings by which all other books were measured and found to be of secondary value in general. The church then did not decide which books belonged in the canon, but only affirmed those books that God had inspired.”

On one occasion I had a meaningful theological discussion with a monk at a monastery. We came to the heart of our conversation with a focus on the source of authority for the believer. I declared it to be the Bible. In a rather shrewd way he tried to bring me to the place of accepting the Catholic view that the Church is that source of authority. His reasoning was that the Church gave the world the Bible. That fact, then, makes the voice of the Church superior to that of Scripture because the one was prior to the other. Further, the canon is never really closed, since the Church continues to speak at times infallibly to the world.

Armstrong speaks of this view of the Roman Church on authority saying, “‘The church, it is argued, gave us the canon of Scripture, and the church, with its proper disciplinary function in every age, expounds and interprets the Word of God.” Sproul refers to the Roman Church and its argument that the Bible owes its authority to Rome “because it was the church who ‘created’ the canon.” Expressing a contrary opinion, Godfrey writes that “. . . we must see that historically the canon was formed not by popes and councils; these actions simply recognized the emerging consensus of the people of God as they recognized the authentic Scriptures.”

Again, then, church councils did not determine the canon. As Dockery says regarding each composition in it, “The book was inspired, authoritative, and therefore genuine when it was written. The councils recognized and verified certain books as the written Word of God, and eventually those so recognized were collected in what we call the Bible.” Dockery concludes, “As men of old were moved by the Spirit to write Holy books (see 2 Pet. 1:21), God providentially led His people to preserve, recognize, and treasure these writings.” Sproul writes, “It was by His singular providence that the Bible was originally given under His superintendence and by His inspiration. It was also by His providence that the original books of the Bible were preserved and accorded the status of canon.”

Criteria for Canonization:

Dockery explains that as the people of God in the early church determined what books should be a part of the Word of God they used a three-fold criteria: “(1) apostolic origin, (2) reception by the original churches, and (3) consistency with the undisputed core of canonical books.” As to the basic question concerning the determination of the canonicity of each book of the New Testament books, Stott says, “Had it been written by an apostle? If not, did it come from the circle of the apostles. Did it contain the teaching of the apostles? Did it have the imprimatur of the apostles? If in one of these ways it could be shown to be ‘apostolic,’ then its place in the canon of New Testament Scripture was secure.”

Canonized Formally:

Dockery declares, “The New Testament canon, in the majority, was accepted by growing consensus around the end of the second century.” Then, the list of the 27 books of the New Testament appears in the writing of Athanasius in 367 A. D. The Council of Carthage formally listed the books for the canon of the New Testament. Concerning it Edwards writes, “At the Council of Carthage in AD 397 all the New Testament books were placed in our present order. But, remember, this council did not decide upon the New Testament; it simply recognized what had been accepted by the church with a growing conviction over the previous 300 years.”

It seems logical, then, to conclude that the God who inspired the composition of Scripture also led his people in the process of collecting and preserving such writings. As Dockery says, “At every point in the transmission, translation, preservation, and canonicity of the Bible, we see God’s providential hand at work.”

The Texts of the Scriptures

Consideration of the texts of the Scriptures becomes important in confirming the readers’ confidence in the trustworthiness of the Bible. This includes a look at the original writings, the autographs; the manuscripts, or copies of the autographs; and the various versions or translations of the Book in different languages.

The Autographs:

Scholars refer to the documents originally penned by the authors of various parts of the Bible by the technical term autographs. The first of these appeared when Moses wrote the Pentateuch around 1500 B. C. The last came into being at the hand of John the apostle when he gave us the Book of Revelation in about A. D. 100. All claims of conservative scholars as to the inerrancy of Scripture apply only to the autographs. The fact is, though, that none of these exist today. Concerning this, Young writes, “Why God was not pleased to preserve the original copies of the Bible, we do not know. Perhaps, in His infinite wisdom, He did not wish us to bow down to the manuscripts as unto images.”

How, then, can current readers of the Bible have confidence that the version they study is true to the autographs? Careful textual criticism serves well in a search to determine to the extent it is possible what the originals contained. Summarizing the position of the devout throughout the ages, Woodbrodge declares, “For many Protestants, versions were ‘authentical’ to the extent that they reflected the ‘originals.’”

Manuscripts:

As each of the autographs began to be reproduced at the hands of scribes, such copies became knows as manuscripts. Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest of the extant copies of the Old Testament were from about A. D. 900.

What certainty can one find that these copies were kept virtually free from any errors? The scribes were almost unbelievably careful in their work. So much was the case that the accuracy of these scholars was all but guaranteed. Kenyon notes, “No word or letter, not even a yod, must be written from memory, the scribe not having looked at the codex before him . . .” Continuing, Kenyon says, “Beside this, the copyist must sit in full Jewish dress, wash his whole body, not begin to write the name of God with a pen newly dipped in ink, and should a king address him while writing that name, he must take no notice of him . . . .” Purkiser declares, “It was customary to count the words and even the letters of each scroll, noting the middle word and letter, to guard against both omissions and additions of any kind.” Adding more information to these re-assuring facts, Edwards writes, “In fact, as one scholar has commented, ‘Everything countable seems to be counted.’ The scribe would have to submit his manuscript for checking and if it was in error at any point then it was ordered to be destroyed; he must then start all over again.”

With regard to the trustworthiness of the New Testament, then, Edwards writes, “. . . [W]e can have confidence in the accuracy of our New Testament text for a number of reasons. The copies that we do possess are close in time to the original manuscripts and therefore are more likely to be accurate. Secondly, we have literally thousands of portions of New Testament texts and so, by comparing them, it is much easier to discover the original text.” Edwards contrasts this with the available ancient copies of the lives and teachings of persons such as Plato, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristotle and Caesar. He declares, “The earliest manuscripts we have for any of these are from at least 1,200 years after the author’s death — compared with documents for the New Testament that are dated within a few decades of the death of Christ.” Dockery adds, “There are more than five thousand manuscripts of the New Testament, making the New Testament the best-attested document among all ancient writings.”The Bible has survived centuries of criticism

Language experts, professionally known as textual critics, spend their lives pouring over the pages of existing manuscripts of Scripture. Their work is tedious, since some of what they find to work with are mere fragments. They exert every effort to find the oldest copies of the Bible still in existence today. These they constantly compare with one another to discover differences, if any, and if so to decide which is the closest to the autographs. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls served greatly to confirm confidence in the accuracy of the work of the scribes. Because of such carefulness, the Dead Sea Scrolls of 100 B.C. showed no real differences to those of A.D. 900. A thousand years of copying produced no real differences. That is a miracle. No doubt, then, God not only superintended the writing of Scripture but also provided for its preservation and transmission in astounding ways! 

Translations:

The final step in making the contents of the Bible available to the reader in his own language is the work of the translators. Their labor is necessary because most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. The exceptions include Jeremiah 10:11; Daniel 2:4-7, 28; and Ezra 4:8-6:18 as well as 7:12-16. These roughly ten chapters were written in Aramaic. Careful study of their contents indicates reasons for this. Then, all of the New Testament was originally penned in Koine Greek, the language of the common people rather than classical Greek.

Thousands of biblical scholars have devoted their lives to translating these Hebrew and Greek manuscripts into well over a thousand languages. Purkiser declares concerning the Bible, “It is the most translated volume in human possession.” Among the earliest of these included that of the Septuagint or Alexandrian Version, the Greek version of the Old Testament. It was produced in the second or third century before Christ. Other early translations also included the Peshitta or Syrian Version and the Latin Vulgate of Jerome. Early English versions include those of Wycliffe and Tyndale.

No one claims infallibility for any translation. However, like the copies of an original photograph, they are also inerrant, to the extent they are true representations of the original. Further discussion on the value of the various translations appears in the next and final article in this series. With the many versions available, especially in English, and with the several tools at the disposal of the reader of the Bible, including Bible dictionaries, commentaries, and concordances, any student of Scripture can rest assured that he is indeed pondering the very Word of God. Young writes, “One cannot but exclaim, after having spent much time in a study of the Hebrew text—and, of course, the same is true of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament—that these manuscripts have been preserved by the singular care and providence of God.”

The Completed Canon

Readers of the Bible have every reason to conclude that the establishing of the canon was long since a completed process. Doockery writes, “. . . we believe that the canon is closed and includes the inspired books that should be accepted as authoritative. This affirmation is based on the recognition that the church of the second, third, and fourth centuries was much closer to the time of the apostles and thus in a better position to recognize and preserve the written prophetic-apostolic materials.”

However, recent times have brought a renewed emphasis on some fourth century writings produced by the heretical Gnostics. Noticeably different from the four Gospels, they contain fancied facts concerning the life of Jesus from His infancy on. Classified at an early date as the pseudepigrapha (false writings), they were never a part of the sacred canon. By way of contrast, Edwards writes, “Of all the books of the New Testament it was the four Gospels that were immediately accepted as the authentic story of the life of Christ. Well before the year AD 150 they had established their place in the worship of the early church across the Roman Empire and beyond.”

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas has Jesus shaping birds of clay and then causing them to fly away. The work tells how a lad once bumped into Him whereupon He immediately struck his fellow dead. Another playmate fell from a height and was killed. Jesus at once raised him from the dead. Years ago someone loaned me such a “lost gospel.” It depicted Jesus:

Making a clay pigeon come to life
Healing a fellow infant sleeping in the same crib with Him
Being worshiped by animals
Killing and then resurrecting a boy who messed up his mud pool near Jordan
Lengthening a board that one cut too short in Joseph’s carpenter shop
Turning a donkey into a man

As soon as I had read enough pages to find such fancied stories, I concluded the book did not belong in the class with those in the sacred canon and ceased to pursue its contents.

Noteworthy is the fact that the Bible contains repeated warnings against either adding to or subtracting from its pages. It may be providential that these appear near the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of Scripture. In the early portion of the Word of God Moses counseled, “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you” (Deut. 4:2). Near the middle of the Book the wise man said, “Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar” (Prov. 30:6). Right at the end of the Bible John the Beloved declared, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (Rev. 22:18, 19). Obviously, these last words apply specifically to the Book of Revelation. However, as providentially arranged they may be viewed as having import for the whole of Scripture.
Young concludes that the believer has more than ample reason for maintaining the view that the Bible is indeed the Word of God. He says, “He believes that the Bible is God’s Word, for he sees the marks of divinity which God placed therein. They make it clear that the Bible is of Divine origin. The Christian sees in this Book the impress of Deity. The evidences for the Divine origin of Scripture are unmistakable, so that he who beholds them not is without excuse.”

The Book of Mormon seeks to counter the conclusion that the canon is a completed product. In it a heavenly being declares,. “Thou fool, that shall say: A Bible, we have got a Bible, and we need no more Bible” (Nephi 29:6). He continues, “And because that I have spoken one word ye need not suppose that I cannot speak another; for my work is not yet finished; neither shall it be until the end of man, neither from that time henceforth and forever. Wherefore, because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written” (9, 10)

The fact is, there is no need of further revelation through Scripture. In the Old Testament the Lord spoke to man about the coming of His Son as Savior into the world. The Gospels relate the account of that great event in history. The Book of Acts speaks of His departure, of the appearance of the Holy Spirit as another Comforter and details His work on earth. The epistles explain fully the meaning of the arrival of Jesus and the Spirit among men. Finally, the Book of Revelation informed man of the events surrounding the return of the Lord to this planet to make good his promises to establish His kingdom in this world. Then, what more can the Lord say?

On occasions some congregations strategically locate a stenographer in their worship services. Their assigned task is to take down in shorthand any prophetic messages, including those gained from the interpretation of tongues. The secretary then transcribes these and files them away for future consultation. This seems to be an unwise practice in view of the solid conclusion that the canon is a completed product.

Summary

This article has focused on questions concerning the canonicity of Scripture. It has discussed the nature of the canon and the need for establishing it. It then traces the development in the selection of its books for both the Old and New Testaments. This includes observations on the criteria for including the various books in the biblical canon. After that comes information on the texts of Scripture, including the autographs, manuscripts, and translations. Finally, arguments appear to support the conclusion that the process in the formation of the canon has long since been a completed matter. Ample assurances appear to conclude that the Bible is indeed a trustworthy Book.

WORKS CITED

Armstrong, John H. “The Authority of Scripture.” In Sola Scriptura! The Protestant Position on the Bible. Ed. Don Kistler. Morgan PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995.

“Canon of the Old Testament, I.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.” 1915 ed.

Dockery, David S. Christian Scripture: An Evangelical Perspective on Inspiration, Authority and Interpretation. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995.

Edwards, Brian H. Nothing But the Truth. New York: Evangelical Press, 2006.

Godfrey, Robert. “What Do We Mean By Sola Scriptura?” In Sola Scriptura! The Protestant position on the Bible. Ed. Don Kistler. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995.

Kenyon, Sir Frederic. Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts. [New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1895.

McKowen, Paul M. In the American Scientific Affiliation. June, 1974, pp. 55-60.

Purkiser, W. T. Exploring the Old Testament. Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1970.

Smith, Joseph, trans. The Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1959.

Sproul, R. C. “The Establishment of Scripture.” In Sola Scripura! The Protestant Position on the Bible. Ed. Don Kistler. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995.

Stott, John R. W. You Can Trust the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers, 1982.

Thiessen, Henry C. Introductory Lectures in Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956.

Woodbridge, John D. “Biblical Authority: Toward an Evaluation of Rogers and McKim Proposal.” In Biblical Authority and Conservative Perspective. Ed. Douglas Moo. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1997.

Young, Edward J. Thy Word is Truth. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965.

  1. [1] R. C. Sproul, “The Establishment of Scripture,” in Sola Scripura!  The Protestant Position on the Bible, ed. Don Kistler (Morgan, PA:  Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995), 63.

    [2] Brian E. Edwards, Nothing But the Truth (New York: Evangelical Press, 2006), 202.

    [3] Ibid., 204.

    [4] Ibid., 212.

    [5] “Canon of the Old Testament, I,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia,” 1915 ed.

    [6] Ibid.

    [7] Henry C. Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), 103.

    [8] Paul M. McKowen, in the American Scientific Affiliation (June, 1974), 55-60.

    [9] David S. Dockery, Christian Scripture: An Evangelical Perspective on Inspiration, Authority and Interpretation (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 86.

    [10] Ibid., 85.

    [11] John H. Armstrong, “The Authority of Scripture,” in Sola Scriptura!  The Protestant Position on the Bible, ed. Don Kistler (Morgan PA:  Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995), 111.

    [12] Sproul, 80, 81.

    [13] Robert Godfrey, “What Do We Mean By Sola Scriptura?” in Sola Scriptura: The Protestant position on the Bible, ed. Don Kistler (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995), 19.

    [14] Dockery, 90.

    [15] Ibid., 86.

    [16] Sproul, 93, 94.

    [17] Dockery, 75.

    [18] John R. W. Stott, You Can Trust the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers, 1982), 37.

    [19] Dockery, 88.

    [20] Edwards, 225.

    [21] Dockery, 93.

    [22] Edward J. Young, Thy Word is Truth (Gand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965, 63.

    [23] John D. Woodbridge, “Biblical Authority: Toward an Evaluation of Rogers and McKim Proposal,” in Biblical Authority and Conservative Perspective, ed. Douglas Moo (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1997), 59.

    [24 Sir Frederic Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1895), 39.

    [25] Ibid., 39.

    [26] W. T. Purkiser, Exploring the Old Testament (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1970), 61.

    [27] Edwards, 242.

    [28] Ibid., 243.

    [29] Ibid., 240.

    [30] Dockery, 80.

    [31] Purkiser, 25.

    [32] Young, 58.

    [33] Dockery, 93.

    [34] Edwards, 226.

    [35] Young, 33.

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