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4 big myths of Book of Revelation
The Book of Revelation has terrified and confused readers for centuries. Few agree on its meaning, but many have opinions.
March 31st, 2012
10:00 PM ET

4 big myths of Book of Revelation

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) – The anti-Christ. The Battle of Armageddon. The dreaded Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

You don’t have to be a student of religion to recognize references from the Book of Revelation. The last book in the Bible has fascinated readers for centuries. People who don’t even follow religion are nonetheless familiar with figures and images from Revelation.

And why not? No other New Testament book reads like Revelation. The book virtually drips with blood and reeks of sulfur. At the center of this final battle between good and evil is an action-hero-like Jesus, who is in no mood to turn the other cheek.

Elaine Pagels, one of the world’s leading biblical scholars, first read Revelation as a teenager. She read it again in writing her latest book, “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the Book of Revelation.”

Pagels’ book is built around a simple question: What does Revelation mean? Her answers may disturb people who see the book as a prophecy about the end of the world.

But people have clashed over the meaning of Revelation ever since it was virtually forced into the New Testament canon over the protests of some early church leaders, Pagels says.

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“There were always debates about it,” she says. “Some people said a heretic wrote it. Some said a disciple. There were always people who loved and championed it.”

The debate persists. Pagels adds to it by challenging some of the common assumptions about Revelation.

Here are what she says are four big myths about Revelation::

1. It’s about the end of the world

Anyone who has read the popular “Left Behind” novels or listened to pastors preaching about the “rapture” might see Revelation as a blow-by-blow preview of how the world will end.

Pagels, however, says the writer of Revelation was actually describing the way his own world ended.

She says the writer of Revelation may have been called John – the book is sometimes called “Book of the Revelation of Saint John the Divine” but he was not the disciple who accompanied Jesus. He was a devout Jew and mystic exiled on the island of Patmos, off the coast of  present-day Greece.

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“He would have been a very simple man in his clothes and dress,” Pagels says. “He may have gone from church to church preaching his message. He seems more like a traveling preacher or a prophet.”

The author of Revelation had experienced a catastrophe. He wrote his book not long after 60,000 Roman soldiers had stormed Jerusalem in 70 A.D., burned down its great temple and left the city in ruins after putting down an armed Jewish revolt.

For some of the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus, the destruction of Jerusalem was incomprehensible. They had expected Jesus to return “with power” and conquer Rome before inaugurating a new age. But Rome had conquered Jesus’ homeland instead.

The author of Revelation was trying to encourage the followers of Jesus at a time when their world seemed doomed. Think of the Winston Churchill radio broadcasts delivered to the British during the darkest days of World War II.

Revelation was an anti-Roman tract and a piece of war propaganda wrapped in one. The message: God would return and destroy the Romans who had destroyed Jerusalem.

“His primary target is Rome,” Pagels says of the book’s author. “He really is deeply angry and grieved at the Jewish war and what happened to his people.”

2. The numerals 666 stand for the devil

The 1976 horror film “The Omen” scared a lot of folks. It may have scared some theologians, too, who began encountering people whose view of Revelation comes from a Hollywood movie.

The Omen” depicted the birth and rise of the “anti-Christ,” the cunning son of Satan who would be known by “the mark of the beast,” 666, on his body.

Here’s the passage from Revelation that “The Omen” alluded to: “This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.”

Good movies, though, don’t always make good theology. Most people think 666 stands for an anti-Christ-like figure that will deceive humanity and trigger a final battle between good and evil. Some people think he’s already here.

Pagels, however, says the writer of Revelation didn’t really intend 666 as the devil’s digits. He was describing another incarnation of evil: The Roman emperor, Nero.

The arrogant and demented Nero was particularly despised by the earliest followers of Jesus, including the writer of Revelation. Nero was said to have burned followers of Jesus alive to illuminate his garden.

But the author of Revelation couldn’t safely name Nero, so he used the Jewish numerology system to spell out Nero’s imperial name, Pagels says.

Pagels says that John may have had in mind other meanings for the mark of the beast: the imperial stamp Romans used on official documents, tattoos authorizing people to engage in Roman business, or the images of Roman emperors on stamps and coins.

Since Revelation’s author writes in “the language of dreams and nightmares,” Pagels says it’s easy for outsiders to misconstrue the book’s original meaning.

Still, they take heart from Revelation’s larger message, she writes:

“…Countless people for thousands of years have been able to see their own conflicts, fears, and hopes reflected in his prophecies. And because he speaks from his convictions about divine justice, many readers have found reassurance in his conviction that there is meaning in history – even when he does not say exactly what that meaning is – and that there is hope.”

3. The writer of Revelation was a Christian

The author of Revelation hated Rome, but he also scorned another group – a group of people we would call Christians today, Pagels says.

There’s a common perception that there was a golden age of Christianity, when most Christians agreed on an uncontaminated version of the faith. Yet there was never one agreed-upon Christianity. There were always clashing visions.

Revelation reflects some of those early clashes in the church, Pagels says.

That idea isn’t new territory for Pagels. She won the National Book Award for “The Gnostic Gospels,” a 1979 book that examined a cache of newly discovered “secret” gospels of Jesus. The book, along with other work from Pagels, argues that there were other accounts of Jesus’ life that were suppressed by early church leaders because it didn’t fit with their agenda.

The author of Revelation was like an activist crusading for traditional values. In his case, he was a devout Jew who saw Jesus as the messiah. But he didn’t like the message that the apostle Paul and other followers of Jesus were preaching.

This new message insisted that gentiles could become followers of Jesus without adopting the requirements of the Torah. It accepted women leaders, and intermarriage with gentiles, Pagels says.

The new message was a lot like what we call Christianity today.

That was too much for the author of Revelation. At one point, he calls a woman leader in an early church community a “Jezebel.” He calls one of those gentile-accepting churches a “synagogue of Satan.”

John was defending a form of Christianity that would be eclipsed by the Christians he attacked, Pagels says.

“What John of Patmos preached would have looked old-fashioned – and simply wrong to Paul’s converts…,” she writes.

The author of Revelation was a follower of Jesus, but he wasn’t what some people would call a Christian today, Pagels says.

“There’s no indication that he read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or that he read the gospels or Paul’s letters,” she says. “….He doesn’t even say Jesus died for your sins.”

4. There is only one Book of Revelation

There’s no other book in the Bible quite like Revelation, but there are plenty of books like Revelation that didn’t make it into the Bible, Pagels says.

Early church leaders suppressed an “astonishing” range of books that claimed to be revelations from apostles such as Peter and James. Many of these books were read and treasured by Christians throughout the Roman Empire, she says.

There was even another “Secret Revelation of John.” In this one, Jesus wasn’t a divine warrior, but someone who first appeared to the apostle Paul as a blazing light, then as a child, an old man and, some scholars say, a woman.

So why did the revelation from John of Patmos make it into the Bible, but not the others?

Pagels traces that decision largely to Bishop Athanasius, a pugnacious church leader who championed Revelation about 360 years after the death of Jesus.

Athanasius was so fiery that during his 46 years as bishop he was deposed and exiled five times. He was primarily responsible for shaping the New Testament while excluding books he labeled as hearsay, Pagels says.

Many church leaders opposed including Revelation in the New Testament. Athanasius’s predecessor said the book was “unintelligible, irrational and false.”

Athanasius, though, saw Revelation as a useful political tool. He transformed it into an attack ad against Christians who questioned him.

Rome was no longer the enemy; those who questioned church authority were the anti-Christs in Athanasius’s reading of Revelation, Pagels says.

“Athanasius interprets Revelation’s cosmic war as a vivid picture of his own crusade against heretics and reads John’s visions as a sharp warning to Christian dissidents,” she writes. “God is about to divide the saved from the damned – which now means dividing the ‘orthodox’ from ‘heretics.’ ’’

Centuries later, Revelation still divides people. Pagels calls it the strangest and most controversial book in the Bible.

Even after writing a book about it, Pagels has hardly mastered its meaning.

“The book is the hardest one in the Bible to understand,” Pagels says. “I don’t think anyone completely understands it.”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Belief • Books • Christianity • Church • Devil • End times • Faith • History • Jerusalem

soundoff (8,460 Responses)
  1. Marquice

    Media is confused, and whoever wrote this article is deranged.

    April 9, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  2. Jess

    This sounds like a book report. I'm glad you took the time to read it because I wouldn't have.

    April 9, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  3. David Nelson

    So now CNN is pushing gnosticism! What next? Theosophy? Utterly shameful. Revelation can't be understood without understanding the rest of the bible. It has a partner in the Old Testament. The Book of Daniel. All the imagery in Revelation has counterparts in the rest of the Bible. The imagery in Revelation can be understood. The idea that Nero was the first beast in Revelation 13 is absolutely ridiculous. All Protestants used to know that the first beast of Rev 13 is the Papacy. The Jesuits had to invent new theologies to hide this fact. Elaine Pagels is helping them and so is CNN. The papacy has declared itself to be God on earth in many ways over the centuries. This is blasphemy. It has thought to change times and laws of God. What changes can you think of to God's laws that the Papacy has encouraged over the years? Whatever happened to the seventh day Sabbath. The little horn power of Daniel (the Papacy) has considered itself above the bible and God's law and has said so. So what is the Mark of this powers authority? It has stated that the mark of its authority over other churches is the unbiblical Sunday Worship. Elaine Pagels is helping to undermine the Bible's authority as has the vatican over the years. The Bible was once banned by the Vatican. It feared ordinary people being able to read the Bible. Instead it invented fascinating rituals for the people under its bondage. Hence the era was called the Dark Ages.

    April 9, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • David Nelson

      "The Pope has the power to change times, to abrogate laws, and to dispense with all things, even the precepts of Christ." "The Pope has the authority and often exercised it, to dispense with the command of Christ." Decretal, de Tranlatic Episcop. Cap. (The Pope can modify divine law.) Ferraris' Ecclesiastical Dictionary

      The papacy practically declares itslef to be the the little horn power, aka antichrist, when it has repeatedly states that it can do away with the precepts of Christ and declared itself to be God on earth. In order to make this usurpation look less shocking its has to demote Christ to being a perpetual sacrifice, a wafer who is constantlly dying. It also uses people like Elaine Pagels to cast doubt on the accuracy of the Bible itself.

      Looking further into the issue we find statements like the following "If Protestants would follow the Bible, they should worship God on the Sabbath Day. In keeping Sunday they are following the law of the Catholic Church." ~ Albert Smith, Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Feb 20th 1920. And...

      From the Converts Catechism "We observe Sunday instead of Saturday because the Catholic Church in the Council of Laodicea (AD 364), transferred the solemnity from Saturday to Sunday.

      In order to pull this off Christ must be demoted. That is where people like Elaine Pagels are so very helpful to Rome.

      April 9, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  4. Kevan

    It sounds like Pagels has pre-conceived notions of the book of Revelation. Many biblical scholars say that it was authored by John the apostle. Here she is nearly 2,000 yrs after John lived telling everyone who will listen that John was an imposter and I guess that makes sense since she believes the gnostic gospels are true. The gnostic gospels were banned by a team of scholars who lived much closer to the time of writing, not just one man, even if he was bull-headed It reminds me of the Jesus seminar where liberal scholars nearly 2,000 yearrs after the bible was written, declaring what was true based on their own pre-conceived idea's. Much like Thomas Jefferson who cut all the miracles out of his own Bible because it didn't fit his view of reality In the Bible there is often a near view and a far view, so it may have pictured Rome, but the book of Daniel also taught about the Roman empire and the New Roman empire which were experiencing today. And the Roman empire was some 600l hundred of years into the future when Daniel was written. Pagels would probably like to post date the book of Daniel since liberals like to say it was written after the events took place, but if that is true why was it found with the dead sea scrolls? The jewish people have been shockingly accurate with their precision in copying the scriptures and the middle east has the best environment for maintaining them.

    April 9, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • GodPot

      "The jewish people have been shockingly accurate with their precision in copying the scriptures and the middle east has the best environment for maintaining them." I'll accept that this comment may be applied to the book of Daniel, but why would you think that has anything to do with the book Revelation? The Jewish scribes NEVER copied or even tried to make copies of the book of Revelation, so your point is moot. The fact that the author of Revelation borrows from Daniel makes no difference when looking for authenticity of authorship or validity of the supposed revelation.

      April 9, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  5. David Nelson

    Elaine Pagels? CNN has decided that Elaine Pagels is the person to tell the world about the book of Revelation. What a joke! Christians who have read Revelation have not been terrifed!!!! The return of Christ is not a terrifying thing for Christians! It is the grestest event ever! Many people see people like Pagels as someone who is working hard to undermine the bible. To cast doubt upon it. Maybe this is CNN's aim also.

    April 9, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • David Nelson

      So now CNN is pushing gnosticism! What next? Theosophy? Utterly shameful. Revelation can't be understood without understanding the rest of the bible. It has a partner in the Old Testament. The Book of Daniel. All the imagery in Revelation has counterparts in the rest of the Bible. The imagery in Revelation can be understood. The idea that Nero was the first beast in Revelation 13 is absolutely ridiculous. All Protestants used to know that the first beast of Rev 13 is the Papacy. The Jesuits had to invent new theologies to hide this fact. Elaine Pagels is helping them and so is CNN. The papacy has declared itself to be God on earth in many ways over the centuries. This is blasphemy. It has thought to change times and laws of God. What changes can you think of to God's laws that the Papacy has encouraged over the years? Whatever happened to the seventh day Sabbath. The little horn power of Daniel (the Papacy) has considered itself above the bible and God's law and has said so. So what is the Mark of this powers authority? It has stated that the mark of its authority over other churches is the unbiblical Sunday Worship. Elaine Pagels is helping to undermine the Bible's authority as has the vatican over the years. The Bible was once banned by the Vatican. It feared ordinary people being able to read the Bible. Instead it invented fascinating rituals for the people under its bondage. Hence the era was called the Dark Ages.

      April 9, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  6. rankmywebsite

    For those of you questioning Pagel's credibility, I would suggest doing some research. She earned her Ph.D. in religion at Harvard University then was part of a small, elite team of scholars who studied a collection of early Christian Gnostic texts discovered in Egypt called the Nag Hammadi library. Considering the fact that most of us get our information from commercially published versions of the King James Bible or from our local pastor at Church on Sundays, far be it for us to judge her academic credentials. The truth is when you devote your life to studying religion and especially when you're delving into ancient texts that have never been published, you're going to see uncover the human part of the Christian story - people and groups manipulating the bible for their own personal or collective gain. It doesn't mean everything in the bible is false, it also doesn't mean that the stories were ever written to be taken literally. Why can't we just agree that there isn't just one path to God and encourage people to find their own way which means studying many religions and finding which parts resonate with them. After all, the ocean rejects no river. If you look at the first prophet Abraham you can trace the lineage of his two sons Ishmael and Issac to see that Islam, Christianity and Judaism originated from one family. The greatest trick Christianity or any religion ever pulled off was making us believe we're different than anybody else because of what we believe.

    April 9, 2012 at 3:10 am |
    • Mike Martin

      I don't question her credentials; they serve her purpose.
      I question her presuppositions of anti-supernaturalism
      evident in her other pronouncements (as her tenuous
      connection of early Christianity and Buddhism).

      April 9, 2012 at 5:13 am |
    • Leah Reis

      Armeggidon hapened many years ago, St. John was writung about the Parthians out of Iraq going to destroy Rome.The visigoths finally managed to due it .

      April 9, 2012 at 5:41 am |
    • Leah Reis

      Armeggidon happened many years ago, St. John was writung about the Parthians out of Iraq going to destroy Rome.The visigoths finally managed to due it .

      April 9, 2012 at 5:42 am |
    • momoya

      That's hilarious, Mike Martin!! Why should somebody believe in the supernatural??

      April 9, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • Justin

      just because you slapped the battle of armagedon on it doesn't make it the "battle" look around read the book you will see the connections

      April 9, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  7. GeorgeL28

    Patmos is not in Turkey but in Greece. Please correct this.

    April 9, 2012 at 3:05 am |
  8. Big D

    These responses are evidence enough that the world is full of gullible people. Facts are not important to them, only comfort and isolation from anything that will cause them to doubt the dogma .

    April 8, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
    • SHAKOR

      PLEASE READ THE QURAN SEE IF IT WILL ANSWER YOUR QUESTIONS ABOUT THE TRUE JESUS

      April 9, 2012 at 2:17 am |
  9. moriya

    anyone want an interesting insight of Revelations from another culture/religion should research the "bardo" of Tibetan Buddhism.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
  10. Smako

    Actually, if you study the Bible and read Revelation step by step and not all in one evening, as well as study the historical times and events of those days when it was written, you will see that people saw that little section of the world as the entire world. It was the world to them. Many scholars who weren't looking for divine nature, including Aisimov, have concluded that the 666 reference was to Emperor Nero.
    As for Revelation being the last book of the Bible, it was not originally. The New Testament was written long after Revelation. If you read the last verse it talks about a curse upon anyone who adds to this book. The book of reference was Revelation, but it was put after the New Testament as a bit of creative editing.
    Final note, Bible, is derived from the Greek, Biblio, meaning a collection of books.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
    • Mike Martin

      Not very ingenuous. More of an argument from silence.
      China did not have any bearing on the welfare of the
      nation Israel: that is why you do not hear of them.

      April 9, 2012 at 5:15 am |
  11. Fred

    This woman is just trying to sell books and CNN is giving her some free advertising. She has no clue what she's talking about and has no credibility. Yawn. Nothing to see here, move along, people.

    April 8, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • Martin

      You're absolutely right. I mean look at how stupid her thinking is...she states early church leaders had conflicts about putting this book in the bible " ok so – who were the early church leaders? The Catholics – that's who as they compiled the first bible. And so did the Catholic church tell this author – " well, ya know we had some conflict about putting in this Revelation book in te bible, bit finally – we said what the heck". Ya right. No her book all smoke and mirrors to discredit the Bible and create her own version. And then she states he wasn't a Christian!! So – the Catholic's allowed a non Christian to be author of one of the books of the New Testament?? Give me a break!! Yes move along folks.

      April 9, 2012 at 12:46 am |
  12. tardacus

    This woman is nuts, revelation is clearly a metaphor for how we will be destroying our planet with global warming,nuclear contamination etc, before our creators ( space aliens) return to stop us from completely destroying the planet.

    April 8, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • Brian

      Don't forget you aluminum hat Scotty.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
  13. weels

    The end of knowledge! Truthmovement.blog.com. One world, one people, one love!

    April 8, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  14. Bill Dattilo

    Who the hell is Elaine Pagels? Among all the Biblical scholars in the world, CNN chooses someone who develops her own unsubstantiated view of the biblical reference and CNN posts it to people who are not knowledgeable. Why, to add to the confusion that already exists. The Book of Revelation is the revelation of Jesus Christ in the end times which He and the Old Testament Jewish prophets spoke of. It involves bringing Israel back to God and the Church joined with Christ and Jesus coming back to earth as the King of Israel after defeating its enemies. Just consider if it is not a possibility given the current condition in which Israel is surrounded by Islam nations threatening them with annihilation. Let the skeptics rant, they did on a certain Friday but Sunday was coming and God had the last say.

    April 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  15. Bill Dattilo

    Who the hell is Elaine Pagels? Among all the Biblical scholars in the world, CNN chooses someone who develops her own unsubstantiated view of the biblical reference and CNN posts it to people who are not knowledgeable. Why, to add to the confusion that already exists. The Book of Revelation is the revelation of Jesus Christ in the end times which He and the Old Testament Jewish prophets spoke of. It involves bringing Israel back to God and the Church joined with Christ and Jesus coming back to earth as the King of Israel after defeating its enemies. Just consider if it is not a possibility given the current condition in which Israel is surrounded by Islam nations threatening them with annihilation. Let the skeptics rant, they did on a certain Friday but Sunday was coming andf God had the last say.

    April 8, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  16. charlie

    Thanks for sharing this article and introducing me to Elaine Pagels. I think the best I can do as a Christian is to embrace truth and live in love and not feel threatened when light is shed on things that have long been confusing to me . . . Revelation is one that I've mostly avoided. Elaine Pagels writes in a way that resonates with my intellect and my soul. They don't have to be at odds.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  17. arlo

    I do not believe we were put on earth to be pawns in a cosmic game of good and evil. We are all a part of God it's called our soul . When we die we are reunited with God. The devil is a myth

    April 8, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • helomoto12354

      Google Annalise Michele, then you'll see if it's a myth. The biggest disservice you can do to God, is to deny the existence of a spiritual force that opposes him. If the only spiritual force in the whole universe was God there would be no sin. Don't deny the fact that there are evil forces and people for you only help them.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
  18. Elijah34

    The easter bunny and eggs have nothing to do with the real word of God. Those are people who have been deceived by the enemy. Because you are of a fleshly and earthly mind you will never understand spiritual things. The Lord tells us through Paul the apostle, He has taken the foolish things of this world to confound the wise. You know little of the universe and how it works. The depths of the ocean have not fully been explored. All this so-called knowledge we have today, has not shed no new evidence on anything. If man and all his wisdom can not solve simple problems as relationships with each other, how can you solve deeper problems. When you are lying on your deathbed, and the cares of this world have passed away, and are no more concern to you. I want you to think about your life. What if the Christains are right? Jesus said if I have told you earthly things and you do not understand, how will you understand spiritual things. King David writes in Psalm 14 that the fool has said in his heart there is no God. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgement, what ever secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil. Ecclesiastes 12- 13,14.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Hope

      "What if the Christians are right?" So that means I should believe something that makes no sense to me simply because it MIGHT be right? I have heard numerous Christians say that. It's ridiculous. That's basically saying they don't really believe, they're just afraid NOT to believe. Do you really think your "god" can't see through that? Your faith is based on a fear of the unknown, of what-ifs. That's not faith. What if they're wrong? What if you get to "heaven" and the big guy is wearing a turban? Have you ever thought about that?

      April 8, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  19. momoya

    Don't just read the bible, read it carefully and as you go, study the myths of the cultures around the Hebrews and witness for yourself how the Jewish/christian myth evolves to incorporate the myths of those people's around them.. God, if he exists, doesn't care about blood sacrifices; the gods of the surrounding cultures required blood sacrifice.. Same way throughout the book.. Read it and study it for yourselves!

    April 8, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • helomoto12354

      Four words of you: Miracle of the Sun. I saw it myself, see it and then tell me if you're still an atheist.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
    • Yakobi

      So you're a sun worshiper, helomoto12354? Well, I've seen the sun many times and I'm still not.

      April 9, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  20. publicano

    I think she is right most fundamentalist Christians see what is in the bible as holy and come direct from God it's not, sorry is an anthology of books written by men of faith, most of them not Christians by the way, during thousands of years and edited by men who well let's said had their own agendas most Christians don't know who decided which book went into the bible we know. I believe that some one who call it's self a Christian should follow the teachings of Jesus so you forget about the old testament no one in that was a Christian and forget the revelation is a anti-roman propaganda pipe dream there is not one book in the new testament written by Jesus you have to believe what it's apostles wrote about him I believe there is a God just not exactly like the bible said about him and Jesus may have been it's son or not after all a lie in 2,000 years can become a religion. faith to have it or not.

    April 8, 2012 at 11:18 am |
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