Reviewed by Andreas Köstenberger
In this significant work, which represents the culmination of a long-standing hermeneutical project, Craig Bartholomew has produced an interesting compendium on a wide range of topics related to biblical hermeneutics. At the same time, those expecting an introduction to hermeneutics as the title suggests may not find what they are looking for. Instead, the volume consists of somewhat loosely connected chapters that together seek to provide a comprehensive framework for biblical interpretation.
The book is organized in five parts with a total of fifteen chapters. It appropriately starts with Part 1: Approaching Biblical Interpretation. Parts 2 and 3 deal with Biblical Interpretation and Biblical Theology and The Story of Biblical Interpretation, respectively. Part 4 is devoted to a discussion of Biblical Interpretation and the Academic Disciplines, while Part 5 bears the title The Goal of Biblical Interpretation (i.e. the practical outworking of hermeneutics). In what follows, I will summarize key content and occasionally intersperse interaction throughout.
Part 1: Approaching Biblical Interpretation
Part 1 gets off to a strong start by citing important biblical passages on the topic such as Hebrews 1:2 and 1 John 1:1–3. Like Kevin Vanhoozer, Bartholomew urges that hermeneutics be trinitarian (p. 5), though he demurs from grounding his trinitarian hermeneutic in Scripture as a divine speech act as Vanhoozer does. Personally, I agree, as I believe Vanhoozer’s proposal is tenuous in this regard. Bartholomew, for his part, helpfully provides a thumbnail sketch of what such a trinitarian hermeneutic should look like (eight points on pp. 8–15). He proceeds to urge a christocentric hermeneutic, though he doesn’t clearly explain how a hermeneutic can be both trinitarian and christocentric. I don’t doubt that this is possible; I’m just pointing out that the author doesn’t elaborate on how such a trinitarian, christocentric hermeneutic can be formulated and what it looks like in practice.
What Bartholomew does affirm is that a “trinitarian hermeneutic views ecclesial reception of Scripture as primary” (p. 9). This, he notes, highlights the importance of tradition and reception history and raises the question of the relationship between the church and academia. Again, those are interesting proposals that would require further fleshing out than is done here. One wonders, for example, how this proposal relates to the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura and what the relationship is between ecclesiastical tradition and Scripture as the church’s final authority. For example, what is the relationship between the Nicene Creed and John’s Gospel? This would seem to be an important question considering recent discussions regarding the question of whether John teaches that Jesus was the “only begotten Son” of God. Also, the author’s frequent favorable citations of the likes of Karl Barth and Lesslie Newbigin raise the question: In what ways do Barth or Newbigin model an appropriate approach to Scripture for evangelicals? I personally have my doubts and believe this calls for further scrutiny and discussion.
On the level of epistemology, it is refreshing to hear the author affirm that the prime reality for the Christian is the God who has come to us in Jesus (p. 7). Related to Scripture, however, I would have liked to see further reflection on the question of how we are to conceive of the relationship between Jesus and the Scriptures. At a recent apologetics conference in Ottawa where I was one of the speakers, one of my fellow panel members urged the audience at the end of the conference to put their trust in Jesus even if they did not (fully) trust the Bible. Regardless of how one navigates the relationship between Jesus and the Bible (I would argue that the Bible is our sole reliable and authoritative source regarding Jesus), the relationship between Jesus and the Bible needs to be clearly worked out and presented.
In chapter 2, “Listening and Biblical Interpretation,” Bartholomew cites the Shema (the Jewish affirmation that the LORD is one God) and states that listening precedes analysis of the biblical text (p. 25). This is good advice and resembles Adolf Schlatter’s “hermeneutic of perception” postulated a century ago. Bartholomew is particularly fond of George Steiner’s Real Presences and quotes from it liberally. Personally, I care less about this work, presumably because I don’t fully understand it! He also remarks, “It is a mistake to ignore the historicity of texts” (p. 30). I agree! I’d be curious to know against whom the statement is directed: Does the author have a specific individual or approach in mind or is this just a general assertion directed against no one in particular? Here and later in the book (esp. chapter 14), the author proposes a lectio divina, a reading of Scripture that consists of reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation.
Part 2: Biblical Interpretation and Biblical Theology
Part 2 starts out with a brilliant analogy by the German theologian Emil Brunner (cited by F. F. Bruce) who stated that we should think of the OT in relation to the NT like a German sentence where the sense of the whole cannot be (fully) understood until the final word has been spoken. Bartholomew states his presupposition that the primary author of Scripture is God who speaks with a unified voice (p. 52). Correspondingly, the greatest challenge for Biblical Theology (BT) is the relationship between the Testaments. The author finds in Scripture both continuity and discontinuity and believes that the Christ event is key. He adds that BT should not subvert the newness of the Christ event. I wholeheartedly agree (though little here is groundbreaking).
Another apt analogy is that of the Bible as a cathedral which can be entered through multiple entrances (p. 63). The main doors, per Bartholomew, are Christ and eschatology. That said, the author is partial to a narrative approach to Scripture, citing Ricoeur’s three levels of mimesis (representation, too complicated to summarize here; see pp. 63–68). Much of this is rather abstract (hardly “introducing” biblical hermeneutics, as the title suggests) and eclectic. A major plank in Bartholomew’s hermeneutical proposal is reading the Bible holistically as story. Toward that end, he cites Newbigin, who asks the question: “What is the real story of which my life story is a part?” (p. 71) and urges that interpreters must recover the Bible as one story (p. 73).
He also cites N. T. Wright’s well-known Shakespeare analogy suggesting that believers are called to act out the final act of the play (i.e., Scripture, the controlling and foundational story; pp. 76–77). For specifics, the author refers the reader to works such as Bartholomew and Goheen, “Story and Biblical Theology,” and The Drama of Scripture; Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation; Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant; Goheen, Light to the Nations; and Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine. He closes the chapter with seven diagnostic questions for BT regarding the way in which it handles creation, creation and redemption, covenant and kingdom, the trinitarian God, the various stages in salvation history, narrative and the centrality of the Christ event, and the entirety of God’s creation (pp. 83–84). Creation clearly predominates in Bartholomew’s scheme, which may open the door for a proportionate lessening of the significant doctrines of justification by faith and the substitutionary atonement, in other words, Christology and soteriology (more on this below).
Chapter 4 on the development of BT appropriately starts with Gabler while acknowledging that incipient BT can be found in Irenaeus’s narrative theology (p. 87). Bartholomew rightly notes that before Gabler, BT and theology were undifferentiated. He characterizes the aims of the BT movement (WWII to 1961) as follows: (1) the recovery of the Bible as a theological book (G. Ernest Wright); (2) a stress on the unity of the Bible; (3) a stress on God’s revelation in history; and on (4) the distinctiveness of Christianity. He also notes critiques by James Barr, Semantics of Biblical Language (1961; liberal theology) and Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis (1970; Reformed, Barthian tradition).
Where to go from here? Bartholomew points to Childs’s eight models of BT (pp. 98–99). I might mention here my own article “The Present and Future of Biblical Theology” in which I discuss four models: classic, central themes, single center, and metanarrative, and advocate a combination of the first, second, and fourth models. Bartholomew proceeds to discuss Childs’s canonical BT (pp. 99–102) and Scobie’s thematic BT (pp. 103–6). One observes that much of the present volume is on BT, which raises the question: What is the relationship between BT and hermeneutics? I would have loved for the author to provide a more direct, explicit answer to this question. The chapter closes with Bartholomew expressing hope for a renewal of BT.
Part 3: The Story of Biblical Interpretation
Part 3 is concerned with the story of biblical interpretation. Chapter 5 deals with the traditions within which we read. Bartholomew discusses the contribution by Hans Robert Jauss (a student of Hans-Georg Gadamer) to the aesthetics of reception (pp. 115–17) and notes that historical objectivism neglects the literary character of the text (p. 117). He urges that we must understand texts in their original historical context and cites the classic example of Genesis 1–2 (p. 118). He proceeds to discuss inner-biblical exegesis and intertextuality, popularized by the work of Julia Kristeva and Michael Fishbane. Here and elsewhere he notes the importance of a worked-out philosophy of language (p. 122). This is followed by surveys of patristic exegesis (pp. 126–45), medieval exegesis (pp. 145–53), and scholasticism (pp. 153–57).
Chapter 6, then, is concerned with early (Second Temple) and medieval Jewish biblical interpretation. It is unclear why chapters 5 and 6 are in this order: Why not reverse these chapters so that the Septuagint and Second Temple literature are discussed prior to patristic and medieval exegesis? Also discussed are the Mishnah, the Targums, the seven middoth (interpretive principles; p. 181), the Dead Sea Scrolls (pesher), Philo, and medieval Jewish interpreters. This adds to the comprehensive (and eclectic) framework the author is seeking to construct, though it should be noted that the book is not an easy read and the sequence of material not always intuitive.
Chapter 7 is devoted to discussions of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and modernity. The Renaissance is described as a threshold period with its ingredients and influences of humanism, Platonism, Aristotelianism, and its advocacy to go back to the sources (ad fontes). The Reformation is credited with a massive recovery of Scripture and the triumph of literal interpretation (Luther, Calvin) to the effect that the plain sense is the spiritual sense (p. 198). Bartholomew then discusses Protestant orthodoxy (1565–1700), the Counter-Reformation, and the historical-critical method, including scholars such as Semler, Michaelis, and De Wette (the founder of modern biblical criticism, p. 213). Also discussed are the likes of Wellhausen, the Cambridge trio Westcott, Lightfoot, and Hort, and more recent scholars such as Guthrie, Bruce, Barrett, Morris, Carson, Dunn, Bauckham, and others. Next on the list of discussion topics is Karl Barth (pp. 230–37), followed by the literary turn in biblical studies including such scholars as Alter, Berlin, and Sternberg (pp. 237–42), and the postmodern turn (pp. 242–44), as well as a possible theological turn (pp. 245–47). Bartholomew states as his own goal the advancement of the cause of theological interpretation to renew biblical interpretation (p. 247), pointing to N. T. Wright’s Christian Origins & the Question of God project. In fact, he is under contract to produce an OT equivalent to this series. At the end of the chapter, the author reiterates his statement that the ecclesial reception of the Bible is primary and issues a call to lectio divina.
Chapter 8, on the canon, starts out by discussing Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (p. 273). While commendable in many ways, however, Bauckham’s work regrettably maintains that John’s Gospel was written not by the apostle but by the nebulous figure of “John the elder.” This is hardly good history, as evidence for this proposal is sparse; unfortunately, Bartholomew repeats Bauckham’s arguments here uncritically. Later in the chapter, he notes that the OT canon was closed well before Jesus and that the NT canon was compiled based on the criteria of apostolicity and catholicity. He advocates retaining 2 Peter and the Pastorals in the canon but does not address the question of whether these writings are authentic or pseudonymous.
Part 4: Biblical Interpretation and the Academic Disciplines
Part 4 is taken up with the relationship between biblical interpretation and the academic disciplines. Chapter 9 addresses philosophy and hermeneutics. Topics include the seminal work by Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth & Method; the philosophy of language (Barr, etc.); and modern hermeneutical theory. The chapter provides helpful discussions of important figures and movements such as Spinoza and his refusal to submit reason to Scripture (pp. 286–89), Kant (who stressed the limitations but also the autonomy of reason and urged that reason reject external authorities), Romanticism (Hamann, Herder, Kierkegaard, Schleiermacher—though it is unclear why Schleiermacher is discussed after Kierkegaard), and Heidegger and Gadamer, who stressed the historicity of all interpretation. Bartholomew probes questions such as whether reason is autonomous or governed by the subconscious; the limits of reason in understanding; and Schleiermacher’s hermeneutical circle between grammatical and psychological, general and particular, and divinatory and comparative aspects (p. 307). In his discussion of postmodernity and late modernity, he discusses Ricoeur’s model of interpretation as a semantic event and his stress on the fusion of text and interpreter through the interplay of metaphor and symbol (p. 315). He also discusses socio-critical hermeneutics (Habermas, pp. 317–23), socio-pragmatic hermeneutics (Rorty), and proposes an Augustinian hermeneutic (p. 326), according to which (1) all understanding is traditioned (faith seeking understanding, with Gadamer); (2) interpreters should use all the resources of faith and tradition (contra Ricoeur); and (3) interpreters should read Scripture in the light of creation with the eyes of faith (with Hamann and Kierkegaard).
He follows with two partially overlapping lists regarding language (why there are two lists is unclear). From Scripture, biblical interpreters should (1) use and understand language responsibly (ethics); (2) language can be used problematically; (3) language should be used redemptively; and (4) interpreters need to listen and then speak and write the truth in love. Regarding the philosophy of language, (1) language is a gift of God and fundamentally good; (2) language is world-disclosing but not world-creating; (3) language discloses; (4) interpreters should take account of everyday language; and (5) language can be misdirected. These reflections on the nature of language are very helpful and important, as interpreters are all too often oblivious to finer linguistic and literary nuances in the text, resulting in a variety of problems including dogmatism, fallacious linguistic method, and others.
While doing justice to the literary and linguistic dimensions of the biblical text, the author urges that hermeneutics needs to affirm the historical dimension of biblical interpretation. This includes the embeddedness of readers in history; the realization that history is subject to God’s order for creation; and the recognition that God is sovereign over history. According to Bartholomew, there is cause for optimism with regard to our ability to interpret ancient texts accurately. Critical distance need not be achieved by way of secularized rationality (Habermas)—an important point—but by “trinitarian distance” (N. Adams; p. 329). In this context, Bartholomew reiterates the importance of the philosophy of language for biblical interpretation.
Chapters 10, 11, and 12 are taken up by what I call the “hermeneutical triad” of history, literature, and theology. Chapter 10 on history is probably my favorite chapter in the book. Bartholomew here provides an excellent survey of the study of history in the history of biblical interpretation. At the outset, he cites the contention by Stephen Neill that the discipline of NT studies needs a theology of history. He notes that the Greeks—including Herodotus (5th cent. BC), the father of history—claimed that truth can never be derived from history. The noted Greek historian Thucydides distinguished between primary and secondary causes, focusing on the latter (p. 340). The Church Father Augustine was opposed to cyclical views of history, contending that history does not evince repetitive patterns but moves inexorably toward its final goal (p. 341). The author notes that the NT offers rich potential for a Christian view of history (rooted in the OT view of history) and contends that the narrative genre (story) holds the key to a biblical view of history (p. 342). This includes critical junctures such as Israel and the exodus, Isaiah envisioning a second exodus, and OT history in contrast to the ancient near Eastern conception of cosmological myth (p. 343). Barr contended that Israel’s tradition is story, which is history-like (p. 344). Spinoza, an important forerunner of the historical-critical method, denigrated historical narrative in relation to the quest for truth (p. 345). The denigration of history as a source of truth is also evident in Leibniz, Lessing (famous for the “ugly ditch,” asserting temporal, metaphysical, and existential gaps), and Kant (who claimed that “the contingent truths of history can never become the necessary truths of reasons”; p. 346). Hegel’s philosophy of history—invoking a Geist (spirit) of history involving thesis, antithesis, and synthesis—is a far cry from biblical history (p. 348)—indeed! Hegel’s view of history was appropriated by David Friedrich Strauss, who argued that NT historical narratives are not history or timeless religious truth but clothed in unhistorical myth (p. 349). Von Ranke’s dictum of history “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist” (“as it actually happened”) has been largely debunked due to the realization that all history is interpreted history (p. 351).
The author also mentions Gabler’s view of BT as historical discipline (p. 352) and discusses the work of Ernst Troeltsch, noting the following elements: (1) the doctrine of correlation, according to which the interpreter understand events in relation to their contexts and in terms of antecedent causes (p. 353), a method that undermines any claims to absolute or final truth in religious matters; (2) the principle of analogy, which eliminates the possibility of miracle; and (3) the principle of criticism, according to which historical results are always subject to correction. Another key figure in this regard is Martin Kähler, who in his search for faith apart from history famously distinguished between Historie and Geschichte, and between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.”
Subsequently, the literary and postmodern turns in biblical interpretation urged that biblical interpreters conduct the study of biblical texts as literary wholes and raised the question of reference and historicity in new ways. Bartholomew importantly asserts that there is “no question that literature can be historiography” (p. 354) and points to an OT hermeneutics of testimony, citing the work of Provan, Long, and Longman (p. 354). He also affirms the importance of philosophy and the theology of history and urges the retrieval of a “nuanced providential understanding of history for today” (p. 357). This is good stuff!
In his further discussion of the theology of history and biblical interpretation, Bartholomew returns to Karl Barth, who, like others, distinguished between Geschichte (christological) and Historie (modern historical thinking; p. 359). In the wake of Hans von Balthasar’s Theodramatik, the author discusses biblio-dramatic proposals such as those by N. T. Wright and Bartholomew and Goheen’s, The Drama of Scripture, which posits six acts: creation, the fall, Israel, Jesus, mission, and new creation. He notes that much of the OT takes place in act 3 in light of acts 1 and 2 and points out that many refuse to take part in act 4 (Jesus). The church currently finds itself in act 5 anticipating the final act of redemptive history. Personally, I favor a simpler scheme of four acts, creation, the fall, redemption, and restoration or consummation.
Importantly, Bartholomew maintains that a dramatic approach embodies a theology of history. God has immersed himself in ancient near Eastern history and come to earth in the incarnate Jesus in first-century Palestine under Roman rule. Thus, we should learn as much as possible about the ancient near East and Israel’s polytheistic environment (p. 361). The chapter closes with a discussion of “N. T. Wright’s critical realism” (p. 372), though one should note that critical realism was not invented by Wright (see esp. Bernard Lonergan) nor was he the first to apply this approach to biblical studies (see, e.g., Ben Meyer, Critical Realism and the New Testament ). Interpreters should take the interpreted dimension of history-writing seriously, but this does not mean there are no facts; this calls for a new ontology (p. 373) and for similar works as N. T. Wright’s on the OT.
Chapter 11 deals with literature. It discusses the literary turn from 1970 onward and helpfully seeks to relate literature and history. The author notes that the OT contains ANE texts and the NT consists of Greek texts. The genre of the Gospels is biography. Bartholomew discusses Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (pp. 386ff) and says his work should be compulsory reading for every exegete (p. 389). Maybe so, but it should also be noted that appropriations of Auerbach such as that of Hans Frei (Eclipse of Biblical Narrative) have unduly propagated the notion of textual autonomy and lessened the legitimate and vital historical dimension of the biblical texts. Bartholomew also states the need for literary sensibility, contending that “the literary, the historical, and the theological are finally inseparable” (p. 390): the hermeneutical triad!
In his discussion of literary theory and the Bible, the author draws attention to N. T. Wright’s application of structuralism to the Parable of the Wicked Tenants in Mark 12 (pp. 404–7). He also quotes Peter Leithart who advocates reading as an act of humility (p. 408) and notes that C. S. Lewis speaks out against reading with suspicion (p. 409), a helpful reminder over against those who advocate a “hermeneutic of suspicion” such as many reformist feminists. Also commendably Bartholomew advocates the pursuit of authorial intent in biblical interpretation: “[W]e want to find the sense the author intended. … I would nuance this … in terms of what the author actually said. We do not have direct access to authorial intention, but since a work is the product of an author or authors, we do read texts to find out what particular authors have to say” (p. 409).
Using strong language, Bartholomew observes that postmodernism’s death of the author is not only dangerous, it is also “hubris beyond belief” (p. 409). In this he echoes similar cautions by Kevin Vanhoozer and others in the wake of E. D. Hirsch’s seminal defense of authorial intent in his classic work Validity in Interpretation. In addition, Bartholomew repeatedly affirms the divine authorship of Scripture (p. 409). In his further discussion of authorial intent, Bartholomew notes that the weakness of Hans Frei and George Lindbeck is the failure to do justice to the referential/historical aspect of biblical texts (p. 410): exactly! In terms of literary genre, the author calls for a thicker notion of biblical texts considering their historical, literary, and ideological/theological aspects (pp. 414–15). Again, I wholeheartedly concur. Bartholomew also discusses discourse analysis and closes with a narrative reading of Luke’s Gospel (pp. 425–30).
Chapter 12 on theology starts with—what else?—Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Also noted are N. T. Wright’s emphasis on worldview (p. 433) and Vanhoozer’s definition of doctrine (approvingly). Bartholomew also cites Anthony Thiselton’s contention that what is needed is hermeneutics of doctrine (p. 438). In his all-too-brief comments on the “theological interpretation of Scripture” (TIS), Bartholomew acknowledges that the discipline remains a “fluid enterprise” (p. 441). While he openly identifies with TIS, I wonder if he is sufficiently aware that many in this movement don’t share his robust view of history and the kind of balance between history, literature, and theology that pervades this volume. Also, the chapter focuses heavily on creation. While doubtless a very important biblical-theological motif, creation is only one among several important topics in Scripture. A full-fledged and balanced treatment of Christian theology would call for much more than merely a discussion of creation.
Moving toward the end of the volume, Chapter 13 deals with Scripture and the university. Bartholomew urges that Scripture should play a foundational role in Christian scholarship (p. 471). I certainly agree. In my view, however, he unduly dichotomizes between the church and the academy. This may reflect his context in Canada (not unlike Europe), where this distinction is doubtless rather pronounced. In the US, on the other hand, there are many seminaries (especially church-based ones) where such a dichotomy is not nearly as entrenched. Why introduce such a dichotomy between an academic and an ecclesial reading of Scripture that subsequently must be overcome? Why not keep the head and the heart, and a devotional and an intellectually responsible reading of Scripture together in the first place? This is certainly what I try to do personally and what I advocate and seek to promote with my own students.
Part 5: The Goal of Biblical Interpretation
Part 5, finally, is taken up with the goal of biblical interpretation. Here Bartholomew provides a case study of a lectio divina of the epistle to the Hebrews (including an excursus on creation and eschatology in Hebrews on pp. 511–18 with a font size that strains the eyes of this middle-aged reader!) and a discussion of preaching the Bible for all it’s worth (including a section on the primacy of preaching and the history of homiletics). This is an interesting practical way on which to end the book, though probably many NT exegetes and homileticians would wish these final two chapters included additional points of discussion and conversation partners.
So, what’s the final verdict? In reading this book, in listening to the address he delivered at last year’s meeting of the Institute of Biblical Research, and in conversing with the author personally at the occasion of his recent visit to the seminary where I teach, I was pleasantly surprised by the many points of agreement between the author and my own hermeneutical proposal epitomized by the “hermeneutical triad” of history, literature, and theology (see my Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, abridged as For the Love of God’s Word). Most importantly, we agree that the study of the historical, literary, and theological dimensions of the biblical text must be conducted in a thoroughly integrated and balanced fashion and that our literary and theological reading should be grounded in a robust historical approach to Scripture.
Personally, I am not quite as eclectic or ecumenical as Bartholomew appears to be in his work. For example, I am more critical toward the view of Scripture propagated by scholars such as Karl Barth, George Steiner, and Lesslie Newbigin, to name but a few scholars who are frequently cited by Bartholomew in his work. I also find it potentially misleading that Bartholomew identifies himself as a practitioner and proponent of TIS when many others in this movement have a much more anemic view of history than he does and practice a reading of Scripture that is much more speculative and removed from the biblical text than Bartholomew’s. In many ways, it seems the author’s hermeneutical pilgrimage is still in progress (as mine is as well). As interpreters of Scripture, we certainly should be open to learn from the work of others, and there are many insights to be gleaned from this author (though in many ways his contribution is that of grand synthesis rather than detailed analysis).
Regarding the present volume, I would suggest that it best serves as a reference work on the various topics it addresses in different chapters rather than as a work to be read from beginning to end. For this reason, I would not recommend this book as an introduction to biblical hermeneutics. I recently added the book to the reading list in my biblical hermeneutics PhD seminar, in addition to works by Hirsch, Frei, Barr, Vanhoozer, Wright, and others, and as such it served well as a capstone by incorporating many of these previous works in a creative synthesis. In fact, the volume covers material I address in several different classes I teach such as Biblical Hermeneutics, History of Biblical Interpretation, Biblical Theology, and Ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman Literature. In this regard, Bartholomew’s work is certainly bold and ambitious, and I look forward with great interest to his future contributions to biblical hermeneutics.
Andreas Köstenberger is Senior Research Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Review Editor for New Testament here at Books At a Glance.
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