Council of Jerusalem

This article is about the first century Council of early Christianity. For other uses, see Jerusalem Council.
Council of Jerusalem
Date c. 50
Accepted by most Christian denominations
Next council
Ancient church councils (pre-ecumenical)
President presumably Peter and James the Just
Topics Controversy of circumcision and the validity of the Law of Moses.
Documents and statements
Excerpts from New Testament (Acts of Apostles and perhaps Epistle to the Galatians).
Chronological list of Ecumenical councils
James the Just, whose judgment was adopted in the Apostolic Decree of Acts 15:19–29, c. 50 AD: "we should write to them [Gentiles] to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood..." (NRSV)

The Council of Jerusalem or Apostolic Council was held in Jerusalem around 50 AD. It is unique among the ancient pre-ecumenical councils in that it is considered by Catholics and Orthodox to be a prototype and forerunner of the later ecumenical councils and a key part of Christian ethics. The council decided that Gentile converts to Christianity were not obligated to keep most of the Law of Moses, including the rules concerning circumcision of males. The Council did, however, retain the prohibitions on eating blood, meat containing blood, and meat of animals not properly slain, and on fornication and idolatry, sometimes referred to as the Apostolic Decree or Jerusalem Quadrilateral.

Accounts of the council are found in Acts of the Apostles chapter 15 (in two different forms, the Alexandrian and Western versions) and also possibly in Paul's letter to the Galatians chapter 2.[1] Some scholars dispute that Galatians 2 is about the Council of Jerusalem (notably because Galatians 2 describes a private meeting) while other scholars dispute the historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles.

Historical background

The Council of Jerusalem is generally dated to 50 AD, roughly twenty years after the crucifixion of Jesus, between 26 and 36 AD. Acts 15 and Galatians 2 both suggest that the meeting was called to debate whether or not male Gentiles who were converting to become followers of Jesus were required to become circumcised; circumcision was considered repulsive during the period of Hellenization of the Eastern Mediterranean.[2]

At the time, most followers of Jesus (which historians refer to as Jewish Christians) were Jewish by birth and even converts would have considered the early Christians as a part of Judaism. According to Alister McGrath, the Jewish Christians affirmed every aspect of then contemporary Second Temple Judaism with the addition of the belief that Jesus was the Messiah.[3] Unless males were circumcised, they could not be God's People. The meeting was called to decide whether circumcision for gentile converts was requisite for community membership since certain individuals were teaching that "[u]nless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved".[4]

Circumcision as a mandate was associated with Abraham (see also Abrahamic covenant), but it is cited as 'the custom of Moses' because Moses is considered the traditional giver of the Law as a whole. The circumcision mandate was made more official and binding in the Mosaic Law Covenant. In John 7:22 the words of Jesus are reported to be that Moses gave the people circumcision.

Issues and outcome

The purpose of the meeting, according to Acts, was to resolve a disagreement in Antioch, which had wider implications than just circumcision, since circumcision is the "everlasting" sign of the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 17:9–14). Some of the Pharisees who had become believers insisted that it was "needful to circumcise them, and to command [them] to keep the law of Moses" (KJV).[5]

The primary issue which was addressed related to the requirement of circumcision, as the author of Acts relates, but other important matters arose as well, as the Apostolic Decree indicates. The dispute was between those, such as the followers of the "Pillars of the Church," led by James, who believed, following his interpretation of the Great Commission, that the church must observe the Torah, i.e. the rules of traditional Judaism, and Paul the Apostle, who believed there was no such necessity. (See also Supersessionism, New Covenant, Antinomianism, Hellenistic Judaism, Paul the Apostle and Judaism.)

At the Council, following advice offered by Simon Peter (Acts 15:7–11 and Acts 15:14), Barnabas and Paul gave an account of their ministry among the gentiles (Acts 15:12), and the apostle James quoted from the words of the prophet Amos (Acts 15:16–17, quoting Amos 9:11–12). James added his own words[6] to the quotation: 'Known to God from eternity are all His works' [7] and then submitted a proposal, which was accepted by the Church and became known as the Apostolic Decree:

It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath. (Acts 15:19–21)

Acts 15:23–29 sets out the content of the letter written in accordance with James' proposal.

The Western version of Acts (see Acts of the Apostles: Manuscripts) adds the negative form of the Golden Rule ("and whatever things ye would not have done to yourselves, do not do to another").

This determined questions wider than that of circumcision, particularly dietary questions, but also fornication and idolatry and blood, and also the application of Biblical law to non-Jews. It was stated by the Apostles and Elders in the Council: "the Holy Spirit and we ourselves have favored adding no further burden to you, except these necessary things, to abstain from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication. If you carefully keep yourselves from these things, you will prosper." (Acts 15:27–28) And this Apostolic Decree was considered binding on all the other local Christian congregations in other regions.[8] See also Biblical law directed at non-Jews, Seven Laws of Noah, Biblical law in Christianity, and the Ten Commandments in Christianity.

The writer of Acts gives an account of a restatement by James and the elders in Jerusalem of the contents of the letter on the occasion of Paul's final Jerusalem visit, immediately prior to Paul's arrest at the temple, recounting: "When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present." (Acts 21:17–18, ESV) The elders then proceed to notify Paul of what seems to have been a common concern among Jewish believers, that he was teaching Diaspora Jewish converts to Christianity "to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs." They remind the assembly that, " for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality." In the view of some scholars, the reminder of James and the elders here is an expression of concern that Paul was not fully teaching the decision of the Jerusalem Council's letter to Gentiles,[9] particularly in regard to non-strangled kosher meat,[10] which contrasts with Paul's advice to Gentiles in Corinth,[11] to "eat whatever is sold in the meat markets."(I Corinthians 10:25)[12]


The description of the Apostolic Council in Acts 15, generally considered the same event described in Galatians 2,[13] is considered by some scholars to be contradictory to the Galatians account.[14] The historicity of Luke's account has been challenged,[15][16][17] and was rejected completely by some scholars in the mid to late 20th century.[18] However, more recent scholarship inclines towards treating the Jerusalem Council and its rulings as a historical event,[19] though this is sometimes expressed with caution.[20] Bruce Metzger's Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament includes a summary of current research on the topic as of about 1994:

In conclusion, therefore, it appears that the least unsatisfactory solution of the complicated textual and exegetical problems of the Apostolic Decree is to regard the fourfold decree[21] as original (foods offered to idols, strangled meat, eating blood, and unchastity—whether ritual or moral), and to explain the two forms of the threefold decree[21] in some such way as those suggested above.[22] An extensive literature exists on the text and exegesis of the Apostolic Decree. ... According to Jacques Dupont, "Present day scholarship is practically unanimous in considering the 'Eastern' text of the decree as the only authentic text (in four items) and in interpreting its prescriptions in a sense not ethical but ritual" [Les problèmes du Livre des Actes d'après les travaux récents (Louvain, 1950), p.70].[23]

Interpreting the Council's decision

James's Apostolic Decree was that most Mosaic Law,[24] including the requirement for circumcision of males, was not obligatory for Gentile converts, possibly in order to make it easier for them to join the movement. However, the Council did retain the prohibitions against Gentile converts eating meat containing blood, or meat of animals not properly slain. It also retained the prohibitions against "fornication" and "idol worship". See also Old Testament Law directed at non-Jews. In effect, the Jerusalem Church created a flexible approach which some accuse of being a double-standard: one for Jewish Christians and one for Gentile converts (for the parallel in Judaism, see Convert to Judaism and Noahides). The Decree may be a major act of differentiation of the Church from its Jewish roots,[25] depending on when Jewish Noachide law was developed.[26] Around the same time period, the authorities of Rabbinic Judaism made their circumcision requirement even stricter.[27] The decision created a category of persons who were members of the Christian community (which still considered itself to be part of the Jewish community) who, in certain situations, would be unacceptable to the wider Jewish community, because they were uncircumcised, besides other objections relating to the 613 mitzvot. On the other hand, some in the early Church did not take long to decide that the Torah requirements were not necessary for Jewish converts either (see the Epistle to the Hebrews, and Justin Martyr's Dialog with Trypho[28] and Marcionism; Paul also repeatedly states that Jews and Gentiles are one in Christ, which may be interpreted as saying that they are not distinguished in any way, including their relationship to the Mosaic Law, but this is just one interpretation and the issues of Paul the Apostle and Judaism and interpretation of Pauline passages supporting antinomianism and Pauline passages opposing antinomianism are still widely disputed. See also Criticism of Dual-Covenant theology).

Determining what followed depends on how reliable one believes the various texts to be. Some scholars have taken a very skeptical view of the probity of Acts. Moreover, Paul seems to have refused "to be tied down to particular patterns of behavior and practice." For example, see 1 Corinthians 9:20–23. He does not engage in a dispute with those Corinthians who apparently feel quite free to eat anything offered to idols, never appealing or even mentioning the Jerusalem council. He rather attempts to persuade them by appealing to the care they should have for other believers who might not feel so free.

From its position of dominance, due in part to its leadership by James, the Jerusalem Church suffered first persecution and eventual decline, but never total elimination (see for example Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem and Jerusalem in Christianity and Pentarchy). The question of the relationship with Jews and Jewish Christians continued for some time, indeed it is still debated today.

Modern interpretation

Jewish Encyclopedia: New Testament — Spirit of Jewish Proselytism in Christianity states:

For great as was the success of Barnabas and Paul in the heathen world, the authorities in Jerusalem insisted upon circumcision as the condition of admission of members into the church, until, on the initiative of Peter, and of James, the head of the Jerusalem church, it was agreed that acceptance of the Noachian Laws — namely, regarding avoidance of idolatry, fornication, and the eating of flesh cut from a living animal — should be demanded of the heathen desirous of entering the Church.

Jewish Encyclopedia: Gentiles: Gentiles May Not Be Taught the Torah states:

R. Emden (), in a remarkable apology for Christianity contained in his appendix to "Seder 'Olam" (pp. 32b-34b, Hamburg, 1752), gives it as his opinion that the original intention of Jesus, and especially of Paul, was to convert only the Gentiles to the seven moral laws of Noah and to let the Jews follow the Mosaic law — which explains the apparent contradictions in the New Testament regarding the laws of Moses and the Sabbath.

The Catholic Encyclopedia article on Judaizers states:

Paul, on the other hand, not only did not object to the observance of the Mosaic Law, as long as it did not interfere with the liberty of the Gentiles, but he conformed to its prescriptions when occasion required (1Corinthians 9:20). Thus he shortly after circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:1–3), and he was in the very act of observing the Mosaic ritual when he was arrested at Jerusalem (Acts 21:26 sqq.)

Joseph Fitzmyer[29] disputes the claim that the Apostolic Decree is based on Noahide Law (Gen 9) and instead proposes Lev 17–18 as the basis, see also Leviticus 18. He also argues that the decision was meant as a practical compromise to help Jewish and Gentile Christians to get along, not a theological statement intended to bind Christians for all time.

According to the 19th-century Roman Catholic Bishop Karl Josef von Hefele, the Apostolic Decree of the Jerusalem Council "has been obsolete for centuries in the West", though it is still recognized and observed by the Greek Orthodox Church.[30] Acts 28 Hyperdispensationalists, such as the 20th century Anglican E. W. Bullinger, would be another example of a group that believes the decree (and everything before Acts 28) no longer applies.

According to Hebrew Roots: "The main question of the so-called Jerusalem Council was not 'How Should Gentiles Behave?' The question was 'What Do Gentiles Need To Do In Order To Be Saved'". At the time of the Jerusalem Council, the New Testament was not yet written. Paul instructs Timothy (II Tim 2:15 and 3:15–16) to study the Word of Scripture. The only Scripture available at that time was the Old Testament. Are we to “conclude that it is permissible for Gentile believers to covet, steal, dishonor their parents, and dabble in the occult, for none of the commandments forbidding these things are specified here. [In Acts 15]. And to say that commandments against coveting, stealing, etc. appear on other pages of the New Testament is just evading the issue, for there was no "New Testament" book yet in existence to instruct these believers. … Obviously James' words cannot mean that none of the Torah's commands are valid except for these four things, for the writers of the New Testament epistles, when writing years later, constantly quoted from the Torah to instruct Gentile believers. The confusion begins to clear up when the rest of James' statement is read: "For Moses of old time has in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogue every Sabbath day." (Acts 15:21).[31] In other words, this is similar to what one hears from TV evangelists today (paraphrased): “Go to a Bible believing church to hear the Word of God after one accepts Jesus Christ as Savior”.


Most Christians consider circumcision to be only an optional ritual, but Orthodox Judaism considers it one of the mandatory 613 mitzvot, following Genesis 17:10–27, and the signature-law (or eternal sign) by which men signed the covenant with God, in blood, and thereby became a People of God, subject to God's protection and curse. This, according to the Torah, was the way that Abraham signed the covenant with God and thereby started Judaism, see also Abrahamic religions#Circumcision. In the 1st century AD, modern anesthesia and antibiotics did not exist and the death-rates were high from even minor medical operations. Demanding a Gentile adult male be circumcised in order to become a follower of Jesus, may not only have been terrifying, but it may have been life-threatening. This is the reason why this Council was called by Jesus' apostle James, who, according to Paul's account in Galatians 2:10 concluded that Paul would not have to demand his men to become circumcised, and according to Luke's account in Acts 15:13–21, James not only permitted uncircumcised men to remain in the group, but he said in closing the Council (Acts 15:19) "We should not trouble the Gentiles who are turning to God."

As for Orthodox Judaism today, the rabbis do not believe that Gentiles need to be circumcised, unless they wish to convert to Judaism, which is discouraged. Instead, Gentiles need only follow the Seven Laws of Noah to be assured of a place in the "World to Come".

See also



  1. Whether or not Galatians 2:1–10 is a record of the Council of Jerusalem or a different event is not agreed. Paul writes of laying his gospel before the others "privately", not in a Council. It has been argued that Galatians was written as Paul was on his way to the Council (see Paul the Apostle). Raymond E. Brown in his Introduction to the New Testament argues that they (Acts 15 and Galatians 2) are the same event but each from a different viewpoint with its own bias.
  2. Jewish Encyclopedia: Circumcision: In Apocryphal and Rabbinical Literature: "Contact with Grecian life, especially at the games of the arena [which involved nudity], made this distinction obnoxious to the Hellenists, or antinationalists; and the consequence was their attempt to appear like the Greeks by epispasm ("making themselves foreskins"; I Macc. i. 15; Josephus, "Ant." xii. 5, § 1; Assumptio Mosis, viii.; I Cor. vii. 18; , Tosef., Shab. xv. 9; Yeb. 72a, b; Yer. Peah i. 16b; Yeb. viii. 9a). All the more did the law-observing Jews defy the edict of Antiochus Epiphanes prohibiting circumcision (I Macc. i. 48, 60; ii. 46); and the Jewish women showed their loyalty to the Law, even at the risk of their lives, by themselves circumcising their sons."; Hodges, Frederick, M. (2001). "The Ideal Prepuce in Ancient Greece and Rome: Male Genital Aesthetics and Their Relation to Lipodermos, Circumcision, Foreskin Restoration, and the Kynodesme" (PDF). The Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 75 (Fall 2001): 375–405. doi:10.1353/bhm.2001.0119. PMID 11568485. Retrieved 2007-07-24.
  3. McGrath, Alister E., Christianity: An Introduction. Blackwell Publishing (2006). ISBN 1-4051-0899-1. Page 174: "In effect, they [Jewish Christians] seemed to regard Christianity as an affirmation of every aspect of contemporary Judaism, with the addition of one extra belief — that Jesus was the Messiah."
  4. Acts 15:1–2
  5. Acts 15:5
  6. Gill, J., Gill's Exposition of the Whole Bible accessed 13 September 2015
  7. Acts 15:18
  8. Apostolic Presbyterianism – by William Cunningham and Reg Barrow
  9. Robert McQueen Grant Augustus to Constantine: the rise and triumph of Christianity in the Roman World Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004 p.iv "According to Acts 21:25, the elders at Jerusalem were still concerned with observance of them when Paul last "
  10. Paul Barnett Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament p292 "He chided Paul later for his failure to require the Gentiles to observe the decree (Acts 21:25). Paul delivered the letter from the Jerusalem meeting expressing James's decree, but only to churches in Syria, Cilicia and Galatia ....Paul did not impose the food requirements for the kosher-killed meat and against the idol-sacrificed meat upon the Corinthians"
  11. I Corinthians: a new translation Volume 32 Anchor Bible William Fridell Orr, James Arthur Walther – 1976 "Paul's openness regarding dietary restrictions raises again the question of the connection with the decrees of the council at Jerusalem (Acts 15:29; Introduction, pp. 63–65). There is no hint here of an apostolic decree involving food."
  12. Gordon D. Fee The First Epistle to the Corinthians 1987 p480 "Paul's "rule" for everyday life in Corinth is a simple one: "Eat anything19 sold in the meat market""
  13. "In spite of the presence of discrepancies between these two accounts, most scholars agree that they do in fact refer to the same event.", Paget, "Jewish Christianity", in Horbury, et al., "The Cambridge History of Judaism: The Early Roman Period", volume 3, p. 744 (2008). Cambridge University Press.
  14. "Paul's account of the Jerusalem Council in Galatians 2 and the account of it recorded in Acts have been considered by some scholars as being in open contradiction.", Paget, "Jewish Christianity", in Horbury, et al., "The Cambridge History of Judaism: The Early Roman Period", volume 3, p. 744 (2008). Cambridge University Press.
  15. "There is a very strong case against the historicity of Luke's account of the Apostolic Council", Esler, "Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts: The Social and Political Motivations of Lucan Theology", p. 97 (1989). Cambridge University Press.
  16. "The historicity of Luke's account in Acts 15 has been questioned on a number of grounds.", Paget, "Jewish Christianity", in Horbury, et al., "The Cambridge History of Judaism: The Early Roman Period", volume 3, p. 744 (2008). Cambridge University Press.
  17. "However, numerous scholars have challenged the historicity of the Jerusalem Council as related by Acts, Paul's presence there in the manner that Luke describes, the issue of idol-food being thrust on Paul's Gentile mission, and the historical reliability of Acts in general.", Fotopolous, "Food Offered to Idols in Roman Corinth: a socio-rhetorical reconsideration", pp. 181–182 (2003). Mohr Siebeck.
  18. "Sahlin rejects the historicity of Acts completely (Der Messias und das Gottesvolk [1945]). Haenchen's view is that the Apostolic Council "is an imaginary construction answering to no historical reality" (The Acts of the Apostles [Engtr 1971], p. 463). Dibelius' view (Studies in the Acts of the Apostles [Engtr 1956], pp. 93–101) is that Luke's treatment is literary-theological and can make no claim to historical worth.", Mounce, "Apostolic Council", in Bromiley (ed.) "The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia", volume 1, p. 200 (rev. ed. 2001). Wm. B. Eerdmans.
  19. "There is an increasing trend among scholars toward considering the Jerusalem Council as historical event. An overwhelming majority identifies the reference to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 with Paul's account in Gal. 2.1–10, and this accord is not just limited to the historicity of the gathering alone but extends also to the authenticity of the arguments deriving from the Jerusalem church itself.", Philip, "The Origins of Pauline Pneumatology: the Eschatological Bestowal of the Spirit", Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2, Reihe, p. 205 (2005). Mohr Siebeck.
  20. "The present writer accepts its basic historicity, i.e. that there was an event at Jerusalem concerning the matter of the entry of the Gentiles into the Christian community, but would be circumspect about going much further than that. For a robust defence of its historicity, see Bauckham, "James", and the relevant literature cited there.", Paget, "Jewish Christianity", in Horbury, et al., "The Cambridge History of Judaism: The Early Roman Period", volume 3, p. 744 (2008). Cambridge University Press.
  21. 1 2 For a clarification of "fourfold decree" vs "threefold decree", see International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: A-D, 1995, by Geoffrey W. Bromiley ("Apostolic Council"), page 202.
  22. Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edn, (NY: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 382.
  23. Metzger, Textual Commentary, 383n9.
  24. Jewish law or Halakha was formalized later, see Jewish Encyclopedia: Jesus of Nazareth: Attitude Toward the Law: "Jesus, however, does not appear to have taken into account the fact that the Halakah was at this period just becoming crystallized, and that much variation existed as to its definite form; the disputes of the Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai were occurring about the time of his maturity."
  25. Jewish Encyclopedia: Baptism: "According to rabbinical teachings, which dominated even during the existence of the Temple (Pes. viii. 8), Baptism, next to circumcision and sacrifice, was an absolutely necessary condition to be fulfilled by a proselyte to Judaism (Yeb. 46b, 47b; Ker. 9a; 'Ab. Zarah 57a; Shab. 135a; Yer. Kid. iii. 14, 64d). Circumcision, however, was much more important, and, like baptism, was called a "seal" (Schlatter, "Die Kirche Jerusalems," 1898, p. 70). But as circumcision was discarded by Christianity, and the sacrifices had ceased, Baptism remained the sole condition for initiation into religious life. The next ceremony, adopted shortly after the others, was the imposition of hands, which, it is known, was the usage of the Jews at the ordination of a rabbi. Anointing with oil, which at first also accompanied the act of Baptism, and was analogous to the anointment of priests among the Jews, was not a necessary condition."
  26. An early form of Noachide Law may appear in the Book of Jubilees which is generally dated to the 2nd century BC: Jubilees Archived February 24, 2009, at the Wayback Machine. 7:20–28: "And in the twenty-eighth jubilee [1324–1372 A.M.] Noah began to enjoin upon his sons' sons the ordinances and commandments, and all the judgments that he knew, and he exhorted his sons to observe righteousness, and to cover the shame of their flesh, and to bless their Creator, and honour father and mother, and love their neighbour, and guard their souls from fornication and uncleanness and all iniquity. For owing to these three things came the flood upon the earth ... For whoso sheddeth man's blood, and whoso eateth the blood of any flesh, shall all be destroyed from the earth." The earliest clear reference is found in Tosefta Avodah Zarah 8.4, dated circa 300.
  27. "peri'ah", (Shab. xxx. 6)
  28. Justin Martyr, Dialog With Trypho,
  29. The Acts of the Apostles (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries), Yale University Press (December 2, 1998), ISBN 0-300-13982-9, chapter V
  30. Karl Josef von Hefele's commentary on canon II of Gangra notes: "We further see that, at the time of the Synod of Gangra, the rule of the Apostolic Synod with regard to blood and things strangled was still in force. With the Greeks, indeed, it continued always in force as their Euchologies still show. Balsamon also, the well-known commentator on the canons of the Middle Ages, in his commentary on the sixty-third Apostolic Canon, expressly blames the Latins because they had ceased to observe this command. What the Latin Church, however, thought on this subject about the year 400, is shown by St. Augustine in his work Contra Faustum, where he states that the Apostles had given this command in order to unite the heathens and Jews in the one ark of Noah; but that then, when the barrier between Jewish and heathen converts had fallen, this command concerning things strangled and blood had lost its meaning, and was only observed by few. But still, as late as the eighth century, Pope Gregory the Third (731) forbade the eating of blood or things strangled under threat of a penance of forty days. No one will pretend that the disciplinary enactments of any council, even though it be one of the undisputed Ecumenical Synods, can be of greater and more unchanging force than the decree of that first council, held by the Holy Apostles at Jerusalem, and the fact that its decree has been obsolete for centuries in the West is proof that even Ecumenical canons may be of only temporary utility and may be repealed by disuse, like other laws."
  31. Daniel Botkin. 2001, March–April. Who Were the Judaizers? Gates of Eden.

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