What was the stance of Arius on John 1:1?

Did Arius believe that Jesus was a creature, a created god? What did he write about John 1:1? Or if there is no such extant manuscript, how would he have interpreted “the Word was God” in John 1:1 based on his Christology?

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1 (ESV)

Created Being

It is not true to say that “Arius believed that Jesus was a creature, a created god,” as if He is one among many.

“Many summary accounts present the Arian controversy as a dispute over whether or not Christ was divine.” (LA, 13) However, “it is misleading to assume that these controversies were about ‘the divinity of Christ’” (LA, 14) 

LA = Lewis Ayres
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

“A second approach that we need to reject treats the fourth-century debates as focusing on the question of whether to place the Son on either side of a clear God/creation boundary.” (LA, 4)

If Arius described the Son as a created being, so did many of his ‘orthodox’ predecessors. For example:

H. R. Boer (A Short History of the Early Church, p108-110) states that “Justin and the other Apologists therefore taught that the Son is a creature. He is a high creature, a creature powerful enough to create the world but, nevertheless, a creature.”

“Both Dionysius of Alexandria and Theognostus use a terminology of ‘creating’ as one among a range of terms, and we simply cannot be certain how this was heard in third-century Alexandria.” (LA, 49)

For a further discussion, see – Christ’s Divinity

 Arian View

With respect to the Son, ‘Arians’ believed as follows:

      • He is the only being ever to be begotten directly by the Father.
      • As the Mediator between God and man, He is the only being able to come directly into God’s presence, as all other beings would disintegrate.
      • He created all things.
      • Therefore, He is God of all things and worshiped by all things. He is our God; just like the Father is His God.

It was Arius’ enemies who, distorting Arius’ writings, claimed that Arius taught that the Son is a created being. See – Did Arius describe Jesus Christ as a Created Being?

Arius Not Important

We only have about five pages of Arius’ own writings (about 3 letters). Consequently, we do not have anything about what he himself wrote on John 1:1 specifically.

One possible reference is where Arius wrote: The Father “gave him existence alongside himself” (RH, 7). Perhaps this refers to John 1:1, which says, “The Word was with God.”

RH Bishop R.P.C. Hanson
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God –

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

However, Arius was not important. Contrary to what is popularly believed, Arius was not the leader of the anti-Nicenes of the fourth century. For example, these anti-Nicenes never quoted him. Again, it was the pro-Nicenes who distorted the truth by tarnishing their opponents as “Arians,” claiming that anti-Nicenes were followers of Arius.

Eusebian View

Eusebius of Caesarea “was universally acknowledged as the most scholarly bishop of his day” (RH, 46). He “was certainly an early supporter of Arius” (RH, 46) but he was not a follower of Arius. In the fourth century, he was the real theological leader of the anti-Nicenes. We may, therefore, appropriately refer to the anti-Nicenes as ‘Eusebians’.

This might surprise the reader, but “John 1:1 … is used by Eusebius of Caesarea to express his doctrine of the Logos before the outbreak of the dispute.” (RH, 835)

In Eusebian thinking, John 1:1 describes two distinct Persons; God and the Logos (“and the Word was with God”). And since there cannot be two Ultimate Realities; only one of them is the Ultimate Reality:

“The Logos could not represent ultimate metaphysical reality (‘He who is’) because ‘He who is’ cannot be ‘with’ Him who is; they cannot both represent ultimate reality” (RH, 835). Or, “the two (God and the Logos) are placed side by side” (RH, 390).

The Beginning

For the Arians, the “beginning” refers to the creation of all things. Firstly, God had no beginning. Therefore, it cannot refer to God’s beginning. Secondly, John 1:2-3 explicitly refers to the creation of all things, which links these verses to the creation account in Genesis 1.

God and theos

Similar to John 1:1, Arius and the other Eusebians did refer to the Son as theos. For example:

The ‘Dedication’ Creed

In 341 a group of bishops present in Antioch “to dedicate a church built by the Emperor Constantius” (RH, 290) formulated what is known as the Dedication Creed. This creed refers explicitly to John 1:1 and refers to the Son as “God” (theos in Greek). It described Him as:

“God from God …
who was in the beginning with God,
God the Word according to the text in the Gospel,
‘and the Word was God’,
by whom all things were made,
and in whom all things exist

Richard Hanson wrote:

“[The Dedication Creed] represents the nearest approach we can make to discovering the views of the ordinary educated Eastern bishop who was no admirer of the extreme views of Arius but who had been shocked and disturbed by the apparent Sabellianism of Nicaea.” (RH, 290)

But this creed also describes the Son as subordinate to the Father. Athanasius coined the term ‘Arian’ to tar his opponents, who were not followers of Arius, as followers of a theology that the church already rejected. See Athanasius invented Arianism or The Creation of ‘Arianism’.

The Council of Serdica

As another example, at the Council of Serdica (AD 343), the ‘easterners’ (those whom Athanasius identified as ‘Arians’) issued a statement that anathematizes “those who say. . .that Christ is not God.”

The term theos

Since the ‘easterners’ regarded the Son both as “God” and as subordinate to the Father, Lewis Ayres says:

This “reminds us of the variety of ways in which the term ‘God’ could be deployed at this point.” (LA, 124) (LA = Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004)

Hanson agrees:

“The word theos or deus, for the first four centuries of the existence of Christianity had a wide variety of meanings. There were many different types and grades of deity in popular thought and religion and even in philosophical thought.” (Hanson Lecture)

God and theos

In the Bible and in the early Greek writers, theos is NOT equivalent to the modern word “God:”

The word theos was used for beings with different levels of divinity. The term theos was originally used for the Greek gods and goddesses and describes an immortal being with supernatural power. The Son of God, therefore, may most certainly be described as “theos.” In English, therefore, when not referring to the Father or the Son, theos is translated as “god.”

In contrast, in English, the word “God” is used only for the Ultimate Reality. Ancient Greek did not have an equivalent word.

John 1:1

The translation of John 1:1 “and the Word was God,” with a capital “G,” therefore ASSUMES that the Son is the Ultimate Reality. Given the meaning of theos as described, this is an application of the Trinity doctrine; not proof of the Trinity doctrine.

I would not translate John 1:1 as “and the Word was God” but would definitely also not translate it as “the Word was a god” because that would imply He is one among many. Unfortunately, the Trinity doctrine has determined the vocabulary of the English language in this regard. It only has the words “God” and “god.” English does not have a word for a Being like the Son, who was begotten from the being of Father to have many of God’s attributes, such as to have life in Himself and to maintain all things by the word of God’s power.

See – Did the church fathers describe Jesus as “god” or as “God?”

His God

So, there are two called theos in John 1:1. We see the same in John 20 and Hebrews 1:8-9. In both those passages, the Son is called theos but the Father is called His theos (His God). Despite this, the standard translation, because it assumes the Trinity doctrine, translates theos in these two instances, when referring to the Son, as “God.”


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FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    For the first more than 300 years, the church fathers believed that the Son is subordinate to the Father. The Trinity Doctrine was developed by the Cappadocian fathers late in the fourth century but the decision to adopt it was not taken by the church. This is a list of all articles on the Arian Controversy.
  • 2
    Who was he? What did he believe?
  • 3
    Who created it? What does it say?
  • 4
    What does it mean?
  • 5
    The conclusion that Jesus is ‘God’ forms the basis of the Trinity Doctrine.
  • 6
    Including Modalism, Eastern Orthodoxy view of the Trinity, Elohim, and Eternal Generation

John 1:1c usually reads, “The Word was God.” Is this translation correct?

Summary

John 1:1This article argues against the translation, “the Word was God.

God and THEOS

For some people, “God” is the Trinity, consisting of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three Persons in one.  For others the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three persons, but three modes of the same one Person.  Still others believe that the Father alone is God.

The word translated “God” is THEOS. While “God” refers to one specific Being, THEOS is a common noun for all gods.  To identify the only true God, the Bible provides additional identification; often by adding the definite article HO before THEOS.

In John 1:1b the Father alone is God.  This is the consistent pattern in the New Testament.  In sentences that refer to both the Father and the Son, translations refer to the Father alone as God.  This implies that Jesus is not God.

The term THEOS appears more than 1300 times in the Bible. In only seven instances does THEOS possibly refer to Jesus.  Furthermore, the original text or the translations of these seven instances are all disputed.  And even if Jesus is called THEOS, that does not mean that He is God, for THEOS also has other meanings.  The New Testament therefore does not present Jesus as God.

The Missing Article

The wording “the Word was God” assumes a definite THEOS, but THEOS in 1:1c lacks the definite article, and therefore seems to be indefinite:

One might argue that THEOS lacks the article to identify this as the predicate in the phrase, and that THEOS in 1:1c should be understood as definite.

Some people use Colwell’s rule to argue that THEOS in 1:1c is definite, but Colwell’s rule cannot be applied to John 1:1c, for his sample was limited to predicates that were identified beforehand as definite.

Research has shown that predicates in the special grammatical construct of John 1:1c, are primarily qualitative in force.  Qualitative predicates attribute the nature or qualities of the noun to the subject, e.g. “that man is a real tiger.”  This does not mean that that man is literally a tiger, but that he has tiger-like qualities. In John 1:1c it would mean that Jesus has God-like qualities, but that does not justify the translation “the Word was God,” for that identifies Jesus as God.

Some propose that Jesus is fully divine and has the same substance and nature as the Father, but that means that Jesus is God, and is not consistent with the finding that Jesus is called God is a qualitative sense.

Conclusion

The following objections to the translation “the Word was God” are therefore raised:

1. It interprets THEOS as a definite noun, while THEOS in 1:1c lacks the definite article.
2. Research has shown that THEOS in John 1:1c carries a qualitative force, and therefore describes Christ’s nature or qualities; not his person.
3. Since the Word “was with God,” a distinction is required between the THEOS in 1:1b and the THEOS in 1:1c.
4. The New Testament uses “God” for the Father alone.

It is highly significant that Jesus is described as THEOS in the first verse of John, which may be seen as a summary of the entire book, but the translation “the Word was God” goes beyond the grammar or the context, and is based on the Trinity theory.

Introduction

This is an article in the series on the translation of John 1:1c.  The previous articles are:

1. Introduction;
2. Who is “the Word?”
3. Meanings of the word THEOS
4. The translation: “the Word was a god;” and
5. The argument that THEOS is a count noun;

The purpose of the current article is to argue against the translation “the Word was God.

God

Firstly, what is does the phrase “the Word was God” mean?  It has different meanings for different people:

Merriam-Webster defines Trinity as “the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three persons in one Godhead.”  In this view Jesus is God just as the Father is God.

Modalism is the doctrine that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are three modes or aspects of one single “God;” not three distinct and coexisting Persons of the divine Being.

Unitarianism “is a Christian theological movement named for its belief that the God in Christianity is one person, as opposed to the Trinity.”  “Unitarian Christians, therefore, believe that Jesus was inspired by God in his moral teachings, and he is a savior, but he was not a deity or God incarnate.” In this view, “God” refers to the Father alone, and does not include the Son.

The translation “the Word was God” is consistent with the Trinity theory and with Modalism.  In a previous article “the Word” was identified as Jesus, but Unitarianism identifies “the Word” as God’s plan and wisdom, which also brought forth His Son.

THEOS and God

John 1:1Consider, now, the Greek text.  The original Greek text did not contain spaces between words.  Neither did it have periods, commas, semi-colons, etc.  Converted literally to English, the second and third parts of John 1:1 could be presented as:

THEWORDWASWITHTHEGODANDGODWASTHEWORD

The translator has to parse the text; after which it might read:

THE WORD WAS WITH THE THEOS
AND THEOS WAS THE WORD.

From this we note the following:

THEOS is not the same as “God.”

We use the English word “God,” with a capital G, for only one specific Being.  The word “God” functions as the name of the only true God, just like Peter and Paul are names for humans.  The word “God,” in other words, is a proper noun, and is a synonym for the Old Testament name of the Creator: YHVH (pronounced Jehovah or Yahweh).

The word translated “God” or “god.” in the New Testament, is THEOS.  The Greek word THEOS does not have the same meaning as “God,” for THEOS is a common noun that is used for all gods, including false gods and idols, for instance:

1 Corinthians 8:5 … indeed there are many gods (THEOI) and many lords, 6 yet for us there is but one God (THEOS), the Father …

THEOS is therefore similar to our word “god.”  To refer to one specific deity, or even to the only true God, requires additional identification.

HO THEOS is “God.”

John 1:1In the New Testament, for example in John 1:1b, that additional identification is often provided in the form of the definite article preceding THEOS.  HO THEOS identifies this as one specific god.  Which god that is must be determined from the context, but given the context of the Bible, unless contrary identification is provided, HO THEOS refers to the only true God.

To translate “HO THEOS” from Greek, we drop the article and capitalize the G.   This applies to John 1:1b as well.  (For a more detailed discussion, see the article THEOS.)

Only the Father is “God.”

But HO THEOS (God) refers to the Father only.  This is seen in John 1:1b, where we read that “the Word was with THE GOD.”  THE GOD therefore refers to the Father and 1:1b means that Jesus was (in the beginning) with the Father.  By translating this phrase as “the Word was with God,” the translators imply that Jesus is not God.

This translation is consistent with the pattern in the New Testament.  The New Testament consistently makes a distinction between THEOS and Jesus.  This is discussed in the article Jesus is not God.  For example:

Jesus prayed, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3).

Paul wrote, “There is no God but one. … there is but one God, the Father … and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him” (1. Cor. 8:4-6).

John saw, “no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev. 21:22).

The following verse explicitly describes Jesus as a “man,” in contrast to the “God:”

I Tim. 2:5 “There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

The word THEOS appears more than 1300 times in the New Testament.  In many instances similar to those quoted above, HO THEOS is contrasted with Jesus, indicating that the Father alone is called God, and that Jesus therefore is not called God.

Jesus is called God.

Dr. Murray Harris, in his authoritative book “Jesus as God – The New Testament use of Theos in Reference to Jesus,” was only able to identify seven New Testament passages where Jesus might be called THEOS.  (He allocated different levels of certainty to different texts.)

The best known is John 1:1, which is discussed in the current series of articles, and where the current article argues that Jesus should not be called “God.”

Another example is Romans 9:5, where 50% of the 28 translations of this verse, as listed by BibleHub, translates this verse in such a way that it makes a distinction between God and Jesus.

Still another example is Thomas.  He refused to believe that Jesus rose from death (John 20:25), but when He saw Jesus, exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (v28).  It is a bit ridiculous to propose that Thomas, in two seconds, changed from not believing that Jesus rose from death to believing that Jesus is God.

These and others are discussed in the article, Jesus is called God.  It is not possible to prove that the Church, when the New Testament was written, thought of Jesus as God.  Just think of the absurdity of it: More than 1300 times “God” refers to the Father alone and only in seven disputed instances is Jesus perhaps called God.  The first Christians worshiped Jesus, but not independent of God.  It was only in the later centuries that the Church had to deal with the apparent contradiction between the pervasive monotheism of the Bible and Christ’s extremely elevated position.

Conclusion: Since the Bible consistently uses the title “God” for the Father alone, it is not appropriate to apply the same title to Jesus in John 1:1c.

THEOS in 1:1c lacks the article.

This is the crux of the dispute about the translation of John 1:1.  Since “God” is a proper noun, a possible objection to the wording, “the Word was God” is that this is a definite translation of an indefinite noun (THEOS).  In this section we attempt to explain the lack of the article before THEOS in this phrase.

English articles

English has both definite (“the”) and indefinite articles (“a” and “an”):

A definite noun identifies a particular instance.  For instance, when we say, “the rock” or “the man” or “the god,” we have a particular rock or man or god in mind.

An indefinite noun identifies any instance of a group or class.  For instance, “a man,” means any one instance of mankind.  Similarly, “a god” would identify any one instance of the gods.

Greek Articles

The Koine Greek of the New Testament has definite articles, often translated as “the,” but no indefinite articles.  Thus, a Greek writer could use of the article to make a noun definite.  The absence of the article usually signifies indefiniteness.  Therefore, whenever we come across the indefinite “a” or “an” in an English translation, these words were inserted by the translator.

Articles in John 1:1

This distinction between definite and indefinite nouns is relevant to John 1:1c, for THEOS in 1:1b has the article.  This phrase literally reads, “THE WORD WAS WITH THE GOD.” It therefore refers to one specific god.  THEOS in 1:1c, on the other hand, lacks the article.  In the absence of other information, one would assume that that is an indefinite THEOS, which would mean:

That it must be distinguished from the articulated THEOS in 1:1b.
> That it cannot be translated “God,” for “God” is a definite noun.
> That it could be translated as “the Word was a god.”

But before we propose conclusions, let us consider further why THEOS in 1:1c lacks the article.

Word Order is Reversed.

John 1:1c reads: THEOS ÊN HO LOGOS.
Literally translated, it means: GOD WAS THE WORD.

The first task of the translator is to identify the subject of the clause.  In English, word order identifies the subject and object.  ‘Dog bites boy’ is not the same as ‘boy bites dog’.  Greek does not use word order to differentiate between types of nouns.  It uses other techniques:

In phrases with action verbs, Greek uses different word endings (word cases) to identify the subject and the object of the sentence, both of which are nouns.  John 1:1 gives us an example of word endings.  It reads, “The Word was with God (TON THEON), and the Word was God (THEOS).”  THEOS and THEON have the exact same meaning.  The different word endings do not change the meaning of the base word.

In phrases with linking verbs (such as ‘is’ or ‘was’) the subject and object nouns are in the same case.  In such phrases, if one noun has the article and the other does not, the noun with the article is the subject (Dana and Mantey, p. 148; McGaughy, p. 50; etc.).

Greek can consequently switch the word order around and it would still mean the same thing.

John 1:1c is an example of a phrase with a linking verb (“was”).  THEOS and LOGOS are therefore in the same case.  But since “the Word” (HO LOGOS) has the article, and THEOS does not, LOGOS is the subject and THEOS is the object.  To translate this phrase to English, where we like to put the subject first, the phrase is reversed and it becomes, THE WORD WAS THEOS.

The question then is, does THEOS in 1:1c lack the article to indicate that THEOS is the predicate in this sentence?  Should THEOS in 1:1c therefore be understood as definite?

Collwell

Supporters of the translation “the Word was God” attempt to use Colwell’s rule to show that THEOS in 1:1c is definite, but this is not a valid conclusion.

Special Grammatical Construct

John 1:1c has a special grammatical construct to which special rules apply.  This construct is called a preverbal anarthrous predicate nominative:

Preverbal: The predicate precedes the verb.
Anarthrous: The predicate lacks the article.
Predicate: A predicate is a noun that says something about the subject.  In John 1:1c (“The Word was THEOS”), “the Word” is the subject, “was” is a linking verb and THEOS says something about the subject.  THEOS is therefore the predicate.
Nominative: this is the case in which the predicate appears in such Greek structures.  This is not important for our discussion.

Colwell’s method

Colwell selected a number of predicates which he beforehand identified as definite on the basis of the context.  Analyzing them, he found, in this special grammatical construct, as in John 1:1c, that such definite predicates usually lack the article.  He therefore concluded that such predicates may be definite, depending on the context.

Some supporters of the translation “the Word was God” read Colwell as conforming that all predicates in such grammatical constructs are definite or usually definite.  But this is an invalid assumption, for Colwell’s sample was limited to predicates that were identified to be definite.  His sample was not representative of all predicates in such constructs.  He was therefore only able to make a statement about definite predicates (see Dixon, pp. 11-12).  His rule does not say anything about other predicates.  It is not valid to reverse his rule to read that predicates without the article (in such constructs) are definite.

Conclusion: Colwell’s rule does not apply to John 1:1c because his sample was limited to predicates that were beforehand identified as definite.

THEOS in John 1:1c is used qualitatively.

Qualitative nouns

Grammarians distinguish between definite, indefinite and qualitative nouns.  Definite and indefinite nouns have been defined above.  They identify or classify the subject of the sentence.  Qualitative nouns signify neither definiteness (a specific instance of a group), nor indefiniteness (any instance of a group). Rather, they attribute the nature or qualities of the noun to the subject of the sentence, e.g. “that man is a real tiger.”  In this way it is possible to describe a person, who is not actually a god, but a human being who is admired by many people for his or her superhuman abilities, as “a god.”  In this case “god” is used in a qualitative sense; it does not identify the person as one of the gods.

Research

Harner and Dixon found that 80% of the predicates in the special grammatical construct, of which John 1:1c is an example, are qualitative.  Harner wrote:

“We have seen that anarthrous predicate nouns preceding the verb may be primarily qualitative in force … In John 1:1 I think that the qualitative force of the predicate is so prominent that the noun cannot be regarded as definite.”

This finding means that 1:1c does not classify Jesus as “a god” (indefinite).  Neither does it identify Jesus as “the god” (definite).  However, the translation “the Word was God” interprets THEOS as definite, for “God” is a name.

Fully Divine

In the first centuries, after the New Testament was written, the Church had to deal with the fact that the Bible dictates monotheism, but that Jesus is sometimes described with divine attributes.  Different views developed in the Church.  After the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion, it took control over the Church.  However, the Arian controversy (about the deity of Christ) caused disagreement in the Church, and that the Empire would not tolerate.  Caesar Constantine therefore called a Church Council in the year 325 in which the dominant view was adopted and the minority was slandered, excommunicated and banned.  The Nicene Creed, formulated for the year 325 Church Council, stated that Jesus was of the same substance and nature as God.  The Nicene Creed thus declared Jesus to be be God.

Since THEOS is most probably used with a qualitative force in John 1:1c, it ascribes god-like qualities to Jesus.  Trinitarians often takes this one step further and claim that the Son possesses all the attributes of God, with the emphasis on “all.”  They sometimes use the words of the Nicene Creed (same substance and nature) to describe the relationship between God and Jesus.  In other words, they argue that the Word fully shares the essence of the Father, though they differ in person.

But to say that Jesus possess the same substance and nature as God goes beyond a qualitative force.  It is to say that He is God.  Then it is not longer a qualitative statement, but a definite one.  For example, when we say “that man is a tiger,” we cannot argue that he has the same substance and nature as a tiger, for then he is a real tiger.  Rather, what we are saying is that he is as tough as a tiger.

Conclusion

The following objections to the translation “the Word was God” are therefore raised:

The English word “God” is a name for one specific being.  In other words, “the Word was God” interprets THEOS as a definite noun.  But in the Greek of 1:1c THEOS lacks the definite article.

John 1:1c has a special grammatical construct.  Grammarians have concluded that predicates in such constructs are primarily qualitative in force. This implies that THEOS in 1:1c denotes Christ’s nature or qualities; not his person.  The translation “the Word was God,” in contrast, interprets THEOS as definite, for “God” is a name and not a quality.

Considering the immediate context, the Word “was with God” (1:1b). This requires a distinction between the THEOS in 1:1b and the THEOS in 1:1c.

An analysis of the word THEOS (God) in the New Testament shows that this is consistently used for the Father only.  To apply this as a title to Jesus as well, is contrary to how the Bible uses the title “God.”

Trinitarian Interpretation

If “God” refers to the Father alone, the statement that “the Word was God” (1:1c) is Modalism, for then it means that Jesus just is the Father.  But since the Trinity theory has been the dominant theory since the fourth century, it is fair to assume that this is what the translation is based on.  However, to translate THEOS in both 1:1b and 1:1c as “God” contradicts the grammar and the context.

It is, nevertheless, highly significant that Jesus is called THEOS right in the first verse of John; in the context of “the Beginning,” when all things were created (v3).  John 1:1 serves as the introduction to and summary of the entire fourth gospel.

People may find it hard to accept, but John and Paul and Hebrews declared that Jesus existed before He became a human being, and that God created all things through His Son.  He is before all things (Col. 1:17).  Nevertheless, the New Testament maintains a clear distinction between Him and God.  In the centuries after Christ the Church struggled to reconcile these concepts and formulate the Nicene Creed that describes the Son as “true God from true God.”

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