Messiahs, Mary and Misogyny

Reading Sabio’s post about Da Free John, messiah and spiritual teacher, got me chasing a thread of research about his New Religious Movement and its history. One of the things that didn’t at all surprise me about the history of his Adidam faith, was his so-called “Garbage and the Goddess period” in which he sought to free his followers of the expectation of societal norms and the assumption that social contracts and conventions are somehow intrinsic.

Noble, you might think. Sure. And one of the ways he chose to do this was to sleep with the attractive women of his devotees, and teach a convenient form of sexual “liberation” which revolved around his own desires for his own and his followers sexuality.

This is, of course, a very common thread among messianic figures in New Religious Movements. When they begin to exercise a degree of control over their devotees, the temptation is obviously hugely strong to use that power to fulfil their own sexual needs. This is not only the case for self-declared messiahs like Adi Da, however. Powerful religious leaders of all kinds often (quite reasonably) extrapolate from their very real sexual needs, and their very apparent ability to hear the communication of God, to the obvious conclusion that God wants them to get laid more. Of course it is abusive, but it is also entirely understandable.

In a train of thought I then got to thinking again about the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Certainly we can be reasonably confident that she had a level of intimacy with Jesus that later Christians found convenient to redact, and further that her role in the Jesus cult was systematically rescinded in favour of the eternally virginal Mary. Even to the extent of making her conventionally a prostitute and adulteress (neither of which have the slightest textual or historical evidence, but both of which are largely cemented in the popular understanding of her). I would go further and say that Christianity was initially quite a gender-egalitarian sect, and that by the end of the first century this was causing enough waves to see a highly traditional gender-role backlash. Women in our earliest gospel, for example, are the only reliable disciples. Mark’s male disciples remain unredeemed ignoramuses and unreliable jackasses throughout the book. His female disciples are there at the foot of the cross, they are the only ones there at the resurrection (everyone else has fled), and in incidents such as the anointing of Jesus with oil, they are the only ones who understand his needs.

I don’t want to suggest that I think Jesus had a religious hareem. There’s simply no evidence for that, and no real way I can see of making that case. But I’m wandering gently through a whole bunch of gender related issues at the moment, and it does make me consider the what-ifs.

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26 responses to “Messiahs, Mary and Misogyny

  1. As you said, history is replete with this phenomena. A catalog of their rationalizations or obscuration patterns would be interesting.

    But hasn’t anyone ever told you, Ian, that envy is an emotion you should hide. :grin:

  2. Ian

    @sabio, absolutely. I was going to add that, if I found myself in that position, I’m not entirely convinced I would resist that temptation.

  3. Pingback: The Magdalene Review: What if Jesus was a cult leader taking advantage of Mary Magdalene? « The Magdalene Review

  4. Ian

    (To Lesa, who’s blog linked to this post, or anyone in contact with her – I tried to post a follow-up and thankyou on the Magdelene blog, but the server software wouldn’t allow me to… I hope you haven’t lost too many comments through this.)

  5. Hey,
    Jogged over here from Sabio’s.

    Never really thought along these lines before (likely because the Jesus-image was a kind of untouchable sacred thing while being brought up) but it does seem strange that Jesus, a charismatic cult-leader, would be an exception to the profile in terms of sexuality.

    I was following an atheist student reading through the bible in a year. It had been a while since I’d really looked at the cycle, and it surprised me just how clear the stories fit into that cult-leader-formula. Jesus is extremely smooth with almost every woman he meets. And yet Christians are supposed to believe Jesus was completely asexual?

  6. Ian

    Andrew, thanks for stopping by. You are most welcome!

    Jesus’s asexuality is a feature of later church doctrine, and isn’t found in the text. On the other hand, the canonical texts don’t discuss Jesus’s sexuality either. Reference to his sexuality is found in other texts, however. As is his intimate relationship with Mary.

    I also agree, I think if you actually sit down and read Mark deliberately ridding yourself of any devotional attachment to the ‘Jesus’ character and ask ‘what is this character like?’. I don’t think anyone, Christian or not, could come to the conclusion that he is some sinless perfect man. He is described in Mark as a highly arrogant, almost bipolar guy with real difficulty relating to people, and with a really condemnatory and nasty attitude. That picture is softened in the other gospels, sure. But it is telling, I think, how little the biblical evidence backs up the traditional picture of Jesus.

  7. Andrew got me thinking. Maybe Mary was a lesbian.
    If we take it seriously that Jesus was born of a virgin (and not just a maiden), the that brings the idea of Parthenogenesis to mind. Jesus would thus have to be a female. Thus, disguising himself as a male, he seemed asexual except with Mary Magdalene because (s)he was actually a homosexual parthenogensis from his mother.

    OK, I know I am getting carried away. But hell, so did the writers of the NT.

  8. Ian

    Well seems about as well evidenced as my hypothesis that he ran a cultish hareem :) So it must be true.

  9. There was a class of women in 1st century Israel/Palestine whose existence has been all but erased. They had their own money (Luke 8:2), they were priestesses in the Temple of Jerusalem (Lk 2:36), they were married or not but not chattel to their husbands (again, for ex. Lk 8:2). They had freedom, power, and self-sovereignty. Mary Magdalene was one of them.

    All this can be found in a careful read of the four canonical gospels, and more so of course if we turn to the texts known as the Gnostic Gospels (Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Phillip, Thunder Perfect Mind).

    With this in mind, the presence of women around Jesus can be understood to indicate that he was part of the community that included such free and sovereign women. 1st century Israel was as homogeneous as 21st century New York.

    Jesus is portrayed also as a defender of women, stopping the stoning, also ruling against divorce which at the time cast a woman to the lowest rungs of society.

    Whether or not any of these stories are true, or any of these people existed, the local culture of the stories is undeniable — and the gender equality you identify is the one remaining proof of it.

    And lastly, re your comment above, yes indeed, there are many different Jesuses in the bible, so, likely many different authors, and — wee, fun! — we get to pick out what still makes sense. The cream rises to the top.

  10. Ian

    Thanks Valerie, welcome to the blog, I appreciate your comment.

    Can I ask more about the evidence you allude to for this class of women? I confess I’m only just beginning the very start of looking at the role of women in this time period, so I don’t recognize what you’re referring to, particularly in terms of being priestesses (did you mean prophetess? – the conventional understanding of Anna is not of a married woman of independent means, but a window living in the temple). I don’t know the resources on this.

    As for the rest, yes. Jesus I think often is a mirror – he appears to be the person we’d want to be. For right-wing evangelicals as much as for liberal socialists.

  11. Hi again Ian. Since you asked…. The word prophetess is often used to translate priestess. Browse around the dictionaries on crosswalk.com (awesome if heavily right-wing Christian website) If you read up about the Temple in Jerusalem, Josephus Flavius is a surprisingly good read (just skip the propaganda) , you’ll see that there is no remaining evidence that women lived there. The presence of a prophetess/priestess flies in the face of conventional understanding.

    Why would Mary bring her child to be blessed by the prophetess/priestess, rather than a priest? What role did this woman have in the Temple that she was performing the ritual of blessing a child? Bits like that are little splinters that, when pulled out, reveal a tear in the fabric of conventional wisdom. It is up to each of us to draw our own conclusions.

    We are not told anything about Anna’s financial status, only that she was married 7 years, and a widow; many priestesses in contemporaneous cultures (read anything about Roman worship of Isis, Vesta, Fortuna etc) were also previously widows.

    As to the status of Mary Magdalene, Luke’s Gospel tells us that she and other women walked with Jesus and supported him and the disciples. Where did their money come from? In an era where stoning women for adultery was common-place, who were these women who were so free to travel with or without husbands. One of the women is identified as Joanna, the wife of Chuza, who was the steward (chief of staff) of Herod (Roman appointed governor of Galilee). What is a woman with a husband in government doing without him, but hanging with a bunch of wanderers? Most of all why doesn’t Luke comment on their presence, explain it? When Jesus eats with a Pharisee or a taxpayer, when he talks with a Samaritan woman, etc, all this has to be explained. This was a society with very strict rules of conduct and community.

    If these free, wealthy, sovereign women are introduced and not commented upon, it may very likely be (of course, ALL of this is conjecture) that they were a recognizable group to a 1st and 2nd century audience hearing these stories. If I were to tell you that “so and so” pulled up in a limousine with private chauffeur, that is our contemporary short-hand. For Luke, it was his opening verses to chapter 8.

    if you are interested in more, have a look at the bibliography source page on my website, lots of good reading there.

    by the way did you see the Pew study that just came out? go atheists! (which I am not, by the way, I am simply not any one religion)

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/28/us/28religion.html

    regards
    - Valerie

  12. Kay

    And one of the ways he chose to do this was to sleep with the attractive women of his devotees, and teach a convenient form of sexual “liberation” which revolved around his own desires for his own and his followers sexuality.

    Reminds me a lot of Osho. I never followed what he wrote (which was apparently quite a bit), but I did become familiar with some of his stuff via a tarot deck which was created by one of his followers. (I don’t know how much he was directly involved in the deck creation.)

    Anywhoo … I really liked much of what he said (quoted in the tarot deck’s user book), until I found out just how nutters he really was. He slept with his female followers and tried to kill the inhabitants of a town by poisoning their well water. (Seems they didn’t want his cult to expand into their area.)

    Ugh.

  13. Ian

    Valerie, sorry for the delay. Okay, I see where you’re coming from. I think you are overreaching the sources, however, but that’s probably a debate for another day. I will definitely read some more though, because it is an area in which I feel quite under-read.

    Kay, Another NRM I hadn’t come across. Yes, he does fit the picture of the megalomaniac cult leader. But I think you make an important point which I detect in Sabio’s original post: just because someone is odious, doesn’t mean their teachings are entirely bankrupt. I’m always frustrated by people who want to make out that Jesus is a perfect super-human because otherwise it devalues some of the more profound things he said.

  14. quick note re “over-reaching the sources” — there’s no other way to go. there is no evidence of any of this. the historically/scholarly acceptable sources are surprisingly few and have been repeatedly tampered with. we really don’t and can’t know what actually happened. it’s up to each of us to make the sense that we need, of these stories of initiation.
    thanks for a good beginning discussion.
    - Valerie

  15. Ian

    “it’s up to each of us to make the sense that we need”

    which is what worries me. There comes a point where we can’t know. Finding what we want or need to find, therefore, feels problematic to me.

    I’m happier to say there are a range of possible histories, and that’s as far as we can go. What is crucially important, however, is that people are willing to pose new possible histories, and argue for them. The reaction is always “that overreaches the sources”, but at least it opens up the space of the possible. I’m always happy with that.

  16. the truth of a good story is always true. the facts vary, the veracity may disappear entirely. these stories still matter because they can speak to our deepest selves. e.g. The story of the resurrection was already three millenia-old (see Innana) by the time of the gospels. it’s not necessarily meant to be taken literally.

    new possible histories can be understood simply as new possible applications of very ancient wisdom.

    it seems to me the trouble begins when we insist on historical accuracy for a wisdom tale, esp. this accuracy vs. that one, which is how wars begin and/or new sects start.

    this much we know, historically, that around the 1st century there was a movement of people that insisted on valuing all human life, not just one tribe or religion, and that valued therefore men and women and children equally, something we take for granted today (e.g. all murder being illegal, not dependent on victim’s class/race/religion) but that was revolutionary at the time. how did it begin? many contradictory stories at the time offered an answer. a few of the more cohesive stories survived. they are all story, not one even attemtps to be journalism. except for Flavius, whose one mention of Jesus is so obviously a later insertion by someone else, no serious scholar counts it.

  17. Ian

    “it’s not necessarily meant to be taken literally.” Really? You don’t think that the writers of the gospels, and the other NT texts, and the countless Christian apologists over the millenia have meant it to be taken absolutely literally? Paul is at great pains to up the ante on this in 1 Cor 15 “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead” I simply don’t buy the line that any significant Christian group before the C20 wanted us to treat the resurrection as mythological. The notion of the story’s mythological truth being its sole purpose (i.e. that its “veracity” in your terms is irrelevant) is a late C20 post-modernist idea. It has no unambiguous prior attestation that I’ve seen. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    “this much we know, historically, that around the 1st century there was a movement of people that insisted on valuing all human life, not just one tribe or religion, and that valued therefore men and women and children equally, something we take for granted today” – Surely you don’t mean the Jesus movement here? If so you’re really reading different texts that I am. The texts we have are highly factional (John the Elder calling the opposing side in his church split “antichrists” springs to mind), and other than the one quote of Paul (“In Christ there is neither male or female”), which is specifically about access to grace, there is precious little egalitarianism in the evidence. You characterisation I think is not born out by what we know about this group. You could, of course, say that the early group really did have these beliefs, but that by the time of the majority of the writing in the NT, it had been suppressed. Well okay, but then there’s as much evidence that the early Christians really did eat babies and sleep with their siblings. It sounds to me like a projection of what you’d like the early Jesus movement to have been about.

    “the truth of a good story is always true. the facts vary, the veracity may disappear entirely” – This is just a linguistic trick. Okay, fine. Let’s stop calling this thing “truth” and call it “veracity”, and call something else (pscychological resonance, say) “truth”. Fine. Using different words doesn’t change things at all. Something happened. If we’re interested in that, we’re interested in that. If, in your renaming, I’ve given you the impression that I’m primarily interested in the “truth” of the early church, then I’m sorry, I’m not. In your renaming, please read my concerns and comments to be about “veracity”. I understand that lots of different people have a psychological investment in who they want Jesus and the early church to be. They have a “truth” they want and need to find. Okay, fine by me. I’m really not interested in that in anything other than an anthropological sense. I originally interpreted your comment as being about the “veracity” of women’s experience in the early Jesus movement. If that isn’t your interest, then I fear we may not find much common ground.

  18. Ian

    Ahem… well that’s embarrassing. I managed to misspell misogyny in the title of this post. I’ve corrected it, but the URL still contains my misspelling, since the page now has an incoming link!

  19. hi Ian. this is really interesting. ok. for one, “the writers of the gospels, and the other NT texts, and the countless Christian apologists over the millenia” are several very different groups of people, with very different agendas, to be understood in their cultural context — for 1st & 2nd century “christianity” (it wasn’t always called that then,) Elaine Pagels and Rodney Stark are wonderful to read; scholarly but enjoyable and full of relevance.

    I am not interested in Paul. He came much after, and was only elevated to the status he has now long after the fact. He did not, at the time, represent the whole of Christianity, that is, people who called themselves Christians, many of whom debated whethere Christ was ever in human form, or, conversely, whether the resurrection was a metaphor. from our perspective now, we’ve been handed down this monolithic thing called Christianity, but in the first few centuries it was as diverse as any new social/cultural/religious trend.

    also re the revolutionary humanism of early Christianity, I refer only to the four gospels of the bible, some of the gnostic texts, and to the all the contemporaneous sources cited in the excellent research of Rodney Stark into the matter. And I insist, the idea that all life was precious, even if people disputed the ownership of that idea, was radical at the time. And yes, it was the early Christians who tried to live that idea. And yes I agree with you, it faded to diaphanous symbolism by the time the church was institutionalized.

    and yes, I think there is a difference between truth and facts. Facts often mask the truth. Esp. Pagels is very good to read to understand what those writing (and those chosing) the gospels were attempting to do. I understand these stories as possibly historically true, but that does not interest me so much. They speak to me because some of them are true about what it means to be a human being. They are the same stories that have been told for 5000 years at least.

    And finally, the bit about the women is anthropological, see Merlin Stone, Barbara Walker, Ross Shepherd and Savina Teubal among many others for scholarly research and improved understanding of the various classes of women that existed in Antiquity, particularly in the Fertile Crescent.

    I get that you are reading the Bible, but what are you reading about the Bible? I don;t think it can be understood without support from the many devoted secular scholars who return context to the histories and myths it contains.

  20. Ian

    “I am not interested in Paul. He came much after”. Paul predates the gospels by at least a decade. 40 years for the gospel of John.

    “some of the gnostic texts, and to the all the contemporaneous sources” The gnostic texts are considerably later again. Most definitely the only sources that could be construed to be contemporary are Paul’s letters. I have read Pagels, and she doesn’t argue this. In fact, it would be a brave scholar who would, since it is diametrically opposed to the consensus. Pagels argues that gnosticism was influenced by Paul, and that threads that became known in the gnostic texts were early. The details of the latter point are contested. And the notion of ‘gnosticism’ itself is not academically favoured. For the seminal work on this see: Williams, Michael (1996). Rethinking Gnosticism: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton University Press.

    “are several very different groups of people, with very different agendas, to be understood in their cultural context” Yes, you’re right. I over-egged the pudding in my previous comment. Sorry. I still think your statement “it’s not necessarily meant to be taken literally” is wishful thinking, on the lack of other evidence. But you’re right, the understanding of the resurrection does somewhat depend on whether you’re docetic or not.

    “And I insist, the idea that all life was precious, even if people disputed the ownership of that idea, was radical at the time. And yes, it was the early Christians who tried to live that idea.” Hmmm, okay, I detect some movement in your position, or maybe just what I thought you were arguing. Stark certainly argues that the positive treatment of women was one of the drivers for the exponential growth of early Christianity. Unfortunately it hasn’t been a slam-dunk in the academy, because it runs afowl of later evidence (not least the later letters of the NT). But if you’re essentially arguing that, then okay, I can see where you’re coming from. That is a long way from saying “a movement of people that insisted on valuing all human life, not just one tribe or religion, and that valued therefore men and women and children equally”. Its been a while since I read Stark, but I would be very surprised if he’d argue anything like that.

    “And finally, the bit about the women is anthropological, see Merlin Stone, Barbara Walker, Ross Shepherd and Savina Teubal among many others for scholarly research and improved understanding of the various classes of women that existed in Antiquity, particularly in the Fertile Crescent.” Perfect. This is exactly the stuff that I’m interested in, and I’m happy to concede in advance my naivity on the evidence for the class of women you discussed originally.

    “I get that you are reading the Bible, but what are you reading about the Bible? I don;t think it can be understood without support from the many devoted secular scholars who return context to the histories and myths it contains.” Hmm.. I take it you haven’t read much of what I write on this blog then :)

  21. Ian

    “hi Ian. this is really interesting.” I agree, by the way. Please continue to call me out as long as you have the patience too!

  22. This is kind of fun. I am trying to figure out why Valerie cares about this stuff and what she wants in the end. Do you want ideal stories of ideal of loving communities that were squashed by oppressors? I am always curious why we like certain interpretations. I always look for motives.

    I like your discussion style Valerie. And I love the images — though I agree with Ian’s cautions. But in the end, I am not invested at all in the Jesus story. Neither of your versions threaten me or society. Yet lots of Jesus stories are bad for us, I feel.

  23. hi again. @ Sabio, I don’t see myself as having an agenda — I have my own experience of spirituality, which being my experience which I do not impose on anyone is not up for argument. However, I see the entire history and interpretation of every religion as entirely up for grabs. So perhaps that is my agenda — that there is no final definite interpretation possible. The moment one group says This Is It, then it uses that definitiveness (is that a word?) to squash people and aspects of themselves and things get ugly.

    @ Ian — Paul as a person came later chronologically, is what I meant. I am interested in understanding the cultural context in which the story of the four gospels happened, that is, the time in which Jesus and Mary Magdalene are said to have lived. And in that time, it was not a crime to kill a slave, for example. Hebrews and Romans alike had slaves, and it was no more a crime to kill one than it was to put down a horse with a broken leg. Also, children, esp. infants, were not considered as valuable as adults. Inside the concept of that became known as Christianity, ALL human life was said to be sacred. Except of course, the lives of the heathen devils who opposed the new church, but that came later.

    Anyway, the idea that all human life could be considered sacred did not exist at the time. It bordered on absurdity to most people of (what came to be known as) the 1st century. So, what interests me is how that idea was born. Jesus is portrayed as talking to Romans and tax collectors, Samaritans and children, adulterers and sinners, everyone who was shunned by Hebrews. “what you do to the least of these you do to me,” etc. I don’t think we can know if Jesus lived, let alone what he said and did. But we cannot deny that a movement was born.

    Since the story that is told of Jesus’s life so closely echos myths that abounded in the 1st century, and even the crucifixion is told in one of the ancient-even-then-pslams which he is said to reference, (y God why have you forsaken me, Ps. 22) as people of the time were mostly illiterate but knew the psalms and the prophets etc, one simply had to say the one line (O say can you see…) to reference the whole thing…. It just seems to me the whole story fits too tidily into existing lore to have ever attempted to be received as purely fact, and I think, in my own humble opinion, that folks only concerned themselves with calling it indisputable fact when the institution of the church became well-funded enough that it began to matter. So I have been interested in setting that aside to try to understand, what was that initial spark?

    As you’ve read Stark, you know he addresses the question so beautifully in sociological terms, but I am interested also in the philosophical/ideological aspect. I am glad to know you have read Stark and Pagels, and no, I have not read your other posts. However, I will now subscribe!

  24. Ian

    I can’t see where you’ve got most of this:

    “And in that time, it was not a crime to kill a slave, for example. ” – that’s not true in Hebrew law. It is a crime to kill a slave. Not the same as murder, but still punishable.

    “children, adulterers and sinners, everyone who was shunned by Hebrews.” – one of these things is not like the others…

    “Inside the concept of that became known as Christianity, ALL human life was said to be sacred.” You’ve said this several times, but I still haven’t seen any evidence that this idea was either a) present in early Christianity, or b) originated with it. Considering all life to be sacred (i.e. not just all human life) has surfaced at various times in various cultures. Jainism takes this far further than Christianity, and predates it by almost 1000 years. This I think is your central thesis, and it isn’t one I recognize.

    “It just seems to me the whole story fits too tidily into existing lore to have ever attempted to be received as purely fact” I thought the first bit of this paragraph is storming, and absolutely correct. But this jarred. I don’t see why we should expect that its cultural and mythological pedigree should mean that those early evangelists didn’t specifically think of it as veracious fact. It seems to me that the bulk of the writing seems to assume exactly that. Clearly they aren’t thinking in terms of an objective historical investigation. But they are telling stories just as everyone does. When a child tells you that someone in the playground punched someone, they might be lying, but they are trying to tell you what happened.

    “that folks only concerned themselves with calling it indisputable fact when the institution of the church became well-funded enough that it began to matter” But I already quoted Paul’s letters on that, which pre-date the established church by 250 years. You say you aren’t interested in Paul, but he is the earliest record of any Jesus movement we have, and he seems to be very definitely interested in the veracity of the resurrection. If your earliest record says so (and isn’t unique in that), I just don’t see how you can claim that it was a much later phenomenon.

    “However, I will now subscribe!” Thank you. I really hope you do come back, because I’ve enjoyed this discussion no-end, and I so look forward to robust discussion. Particular with people who suggest books I haven’t read!

  25. Does it matter whether the writers of the gospel believed they were writing history rather than myth? Can anyone know what they believed?

    Can it be that the very nature of story, the very nature of fact and truth, evolves along with our ability to verify everything, and that the distinction did not mean the same thing back then? We are talking about the Romans, yes, who believed that the Gods gathered on Mount Olympus, etc, that Julius Caesar became a god, and on and on. What is true fact to such people? What is history and what is myth?

    Paul’s writings have been heavily changed and tampered with… but as I write, and look back to what you wrote I realize, I am not sure what point you are trying to make. I am not claiming to know blanket answers to anything. I also don’t really have a point to make. The ideal of universal charity of early so-called Christians is well known, why argue that? The absence of consideration for all life in Rome is also well documented, far away from Jainists.

    I have the impression you are arguing what I write point by point without actually making a point of your own. What is it you are aiming to prove, disprove, or understand, or deconstruct?

  26. Ian

    Yes, as is often the case when these kinds of things are discussed point-by-point over a course of days, it is very difficult to get the bigger picture.

    And my bigger picture isn’t really so specific. This thread simply goes back to my general interest with what you say, but concern that some of your generalities don’t match the evidence I’m aware of. Think of it really as “interesting, but I’m skeptical”. I think as I gradually understand more of where you’re coming from, that you’re probably fine with that. And I’m fine with that too. I don’t want to appear like I’m trying to flog a dead horse, but actually I do quite enjoy the to and fro.

    “The ideal of universal charity of early so-called Christians is well known, why argue that? The absence of consideration for all life in Rome is also well documented, far away from Jainists.” But you didn’t say that originally. If that is what you meant, then that’s fine. You seemed to be suggesting that Christians invented the idea that every person was to be treated equally. And that I find historically dubious. If that’s not what you were suggesting, then fine.

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