How Do You Solve a Problem Like the JST?

One of the most important facets of Mormonism that sets us apart from other faiths is that we don’t believe the Bible to be inerrant. We believe that it contains errors. This belief alone causes us to be viewed as unChristian by many evangelicals and other sola scriptura believers who consider any alteration of the Bible to be heretical. Reformists, in breaking with the Roman Catholic church’s authority, placed greater weight on scripture as the sole voice of God (not through the filter of papal authority, but accessible to all believers directly through reading the Bible). For some, if the Bible is fallible, then Christianity has no leg to stand on in proclaiming it has access to God’s truth.

When I was young, I remember thinking of the Joseph Smith Translation as an actual translation, only done through direct revelation rather than research and linguistic analysis the way other Bible scholars try to improve the translation of the bible that we have. Now I’m not so sure that’s what it is. There’s reason to ask what Joseph thought he was doing, what he was actually doing, and how he arrived at his conclusions in making corrections to the text. Since the JST was not finished, we essentially use it as Biblical commentary (although it is seen as authoritative on par with greek translations defined in the commentary); the JST appears alongside other translations, cross-indexing, and topic guide links, to enhance our reading of a passage. It is not a complete re-translation of the Bible, and it uses the flawed King James Version [1] as its starting point.

I’ve recently finished re-reading Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. He talks a lot about the evolution of Biblical scholarship and his own epiphanies as a former evangelical Christian learning that his views of Biblical inerrancy were uninformed and naive. He describes the struggles among translators throughout the ages to find the best, most “original” sources of the Bible given the process by which books were written, copied, modified, and stored. His book is a great resource for those of us raised on the foundational idea that because the Bible contains errors, we have to rely on more direct sources of revelation.

According to our 8th Article of Faith:

We believe the Bible to be the word of God. as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.

Joseph Smith did not believe the Bible was inerrant. In his words:

“I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors”

Why did he believe it contained errors? Because his own revelations contradicted it at times.

“From sundry revelations which had been received, it was apparent that many points touching the salvation of men, had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled”

Joseph worked on the JST throughout his lifetime, although the majority of it was done by 1833. He never considered it to be complete, and even worked on it as late as 1844. Had he lived longer, it is likely he would have made more efforts on this work. Philip Barlow in Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion lists the types of changes Joseph Smith made to the text:

  • Long additions that have little or no biblical parallel, such as the visions of Moses & Enoch and the passage on Melchizedek
  • “Common-sense” changes (e.g., Genesis 6:6 “And it repented the Lord that he had made man” is revised in Moses 8:25 to read: “And it repented Noah, and his heart was pained that the Lord had made man”. God, being perfect, needs no repentance.)
  • “Interpretive additions,” often signaled by the phrase “or in other words,” appending to a passage to clarify
  • “Harmonization,” reconciled passages that seemed to conflict with other passages
  • “Not easily classifiable,” frequently the meaning is changed, often idiosyncratically
  • Grammatical improvements, technical clarifications, and modernization of terms (by far the most common within the JST)

Image result for misquoting jesusFrom Ehrman’s comprehensive overview, differences and errors in the Biblical texts were a feature of the transmission process, the complex history of the texts themselves:

  • Copies available to later “translators” may not have been the most original or best translations–just what was conveniently available at the time. Better or earlier copies may have become available later through discoveries. Some copies were made from verbal dictation; some by visually looking at a copy and handwriting a new one.
  • Professional scribes were used to transmit texts using a copy. These professionals were educated, but might modify texts to clarify meaning or to contradict emerging heresies. They also made some errors that were simple mistakes: missing a line of text, misreading something in copying it, or mistaking a similar word for what was written. These errors were then copied by later scribes. Scribes also sometimes added marginal notes that were later adopted into the text.
  • The earliest Christian scribes were members of congregations, not professional scribes, who simply knew how to write. In some cases, their “writing” skills meant they could copy the words but not actually understand them.
  • Oral traditions that pre-dated any of the four written gospels. Since the earliest documented gospel was many decades after the death of Christ, that means that these stories were likely passed down through stories shared among believers. Different congregations may have shared the same stories differently or used them for different purposes. Details may have been added or omitted to make a point.

He also characterized many types of changes that were made to the texts that introduced human error by taking the texts further away from their original meaning. Just to list a few:

  • Harmonization. When scribes encountered passages that had conflicting accounts, they tried to minimize differences by removing problematic details. Some attempted to fully merge all 4 gospels into one super-gospel which was not possible since details conflict. However, scholars agree that the more problematic text is likely the more accurate because it’s more likely that a scribe would create an “easier” reading than a “harder” one. Scribes tried to smooth over difficult passages. In fact, the more amateurish the copy, the more likely it is older and closer to the original since scribes add polish to a rough text.
  • Pseudonymous letters. Early Christians would sometimes write letters and attribute them to authority figures (such as the apostle Paul) in order to add weight to their views. Similarly, contemporary Mormons might quote general authorities, even if this means taking something said out of context, in order to make a point; however, pseudonymous writing goes further by attributing a document to someone who didn’t write it. This wasn’t done to deceive intentionally so much as to correct perceived doctrinal errors in specific congregations. It was a standard practice during a time when very few people were literate and authenticating documents was mostly impossible anyway.
  • Apologetics. The letters of Paul are apologetic in that they were written to defend doctrine against heresies that were beginning to occur in some of the branches of the early Christian church. As such, they applied to a very specific context and time.
  • Interpretation of scripture. Some of the New Testament is an interpretation of the Old Testament. Christ’s words are often talking about a scripture known to the Jews and then giving his spin on it; this was a unique feature of Christianity, that Jesus’ interpretations superseded the Jewish texts themselves. Paul continued this tradition of creating scripture by interpreting prior scripture in his letters.

Ultimately, as Ehrman points out, we don’t have any originals. They don’t exist. Even if they did exist, they were still written decades after the events took place or using flawed methods such as Paul giving a ghost writer a rough outline and telling him to fill in the gaps.

Ehrman summarizes how the Bible changed for him as he examined these flaws:

The Bible began to appear to me as a very human book. Just as human scribes had copied, and changed, the texts of scripture, so too had human authors originally written the texts of scripture. This was a human book from beginning to end. It was written by different human authors at different times and in different places to address different needs. Many of these authors no doubt felt they were inspired by God to say what they did, but they had their own perspectives, their own beliefs, their own views, their own needs, their own desires, their own understandings, their own theologies; and these perspectives, beliefs, views, needs, desires, understandings, and theologies informed everything they said.

This takes us back to square one. What is the role of scripture and how does human authority (prophetic, papal or the textual authority) interact with the divine? If any attempt to understand God’s will is always going to be viewed through a flawed human filter, how can we have any confidence in scripture or in doctrine? Joseph Smith’s endeavor doesn’t point to the text as the source of God’s will so much as it points to him (Joseph) as the interpreter of God’s will. And yet, the JST is incomplete and does not identify some of the errors that all Bible scholars agree exist in the Bible–in fact, it doubles down on some errors in attempting to harmonize away troubling passages. It’s ironic that an attempt to eliminate the scribal errors falls prey to the same scribal errors. But maybe that’s the point of the JST, not that he could get to the original, pure meaning, but that he could point to the flaws in the transmission process and create a church of scriptural skeptics who would be more reliant on seeking and less on knowing. [2]

I’ll end with another great quote by Ehrman from the foreword of his book. He talks about his professor of Greek at Wheaton, a Dr. Gerald Hawthorne, who was a committed Evangelical Christian but one with views that initially shocked Ehrman as a student.

He was not afraid of asking questions of his faith. At the time, I took this as a sign of weakness (in fact, I thought I had nearly all the answers to the questions he asked); eventually I saw it as a real commitment to truth and as being willing to open oneself up to the possibility that one’s views need to be revised in light of further knowledge and life experience.

For all his flaws, Joseph was a seeker. But most of us struggle to be seekers, to try to determine for ourselves the meaning of life or our own purpose or God’s will or what is right and wrong, even in gray situations. Most of us prefer to outsource authority to a book like the Bible or an authority figure like a prophet or Pope rather than wrestle with meaning ourselves. It’s easy enough to see our own limitations and sometimes easier to defend someone else’s authority (or the authority of the Bible itself) as not possessing the flaws we know our own understanding contains. On the flip side, for some of us it’s easy to pick apart the flaws of others when they are apparent without trying to do the heavy lifting ourselves; it can be overwhelming to try to sort through the errors of a two-thousand year old book. Joseph could have simply noted the errors and not attempted his own translation. Instead, he picked up a quill and went to work.

Maybe that’s the best any of us can do.


[1] Flawed because it was based on hastily done faulty translations done in the 11th C. Superior copies of the gospels that have subsequently become available illustrate many errors in the KJV.

[2] If he could only see how that turned out.


  1. “It’s ironic that an attempt to eliminate the scribal errors falls prey to the same scribal errors. But maybe that’s the point of the JST, not that he could get to the original, pure meaning, but that he could point to the flaws in the transmission process and create a church of scriptural skeptics who would be more reliant on seeking and less on knowing.”

    We have similar scribal errors in the D&C. At least the possibility of such errors in the BoM is explicitly acknowledged by its title page. General Conference talks are edited for publication, sometimes significantly changing the meaning of what was said. For some it seems best to read scriptures as motivating seeking rather than as books of answers. This approach may become more common in Christianity generally, though it is still far from the most common approach among evangelicals, sola-scriptura protestants, or Mormons. But it is what JS did.

    “[In 2011, R]eligion professor Timothy Beal published ‘The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book.’ His counterintuitive thesis: The Bible is not a book of answers, but a book of questions. God wants it to be confusing, he says, on purpose.
    ‘It’s not that the hundreds of people writing and editing the Bible were stupid and just ignored the contradictions,’ Beal says. ‘If you think religion is about answers, it’s likely that when you face this material, you’ll reject it. So much of life is really about ambiguity — if you think it’s about the question, as I do, then it’s a richer place to explore.’ “
    Maureen Callahan,

  2. Happy Hubby says:

    The part that really weakens everything for me is when you see KJV verses show up in the BOM (which has a somewhat plausible explanation), but then in the JST version there is more stuff showing up. But the BOM is supposed to be the most correct book, or is the the JST the most correct book?

  3. It’s almost like “correctness” in that quote has very little to do with transcriptional accuracy or something.

  4. For some good points about language and errors in the BoM and for some nonsense about the translation quality, see Monte Nyman’s 1984 article at
    “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, [that] a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” (History of the Church, 4:461.) Even if the quoted statement was in fact JS’ and not heavily edited by subsequent compilers of the History as are at least some parts of that History ascribed to JS, it has indeed seemed to some that it has to do primarily with getting nearer to God and not with translation or “transcriptional accuracy or something.” Of course, that’s likely what JKC said in far fewer words.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    When I was an undergrad at BYU studying ancient languages I became interested in biblical textual criticism. This was not a subject that was broached in any class on campus, so I spent a lot of time in the library reading about it. When I looked at the JST from this perspective, I was surprised to find a lot of places where there seemed to be ancient textual evidence for what Joseph had done, most of which had not been noticed (at least not in print) by anyone else. So I started to write an article about it. I still have like 100 handwritten pages of an abortive attempt at that article, but I slowly began to realize that it simply wasn’t working, and my thesis was backwards. The JST revisions I had found were not restoring the original text, they were paralleling ancient revisions to the text, and for similar reasons.

    Here’s a pretty simple example. KJV Revelation 2:22 reads “Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds.” The JST changes the word “bed” to “hell.” Below are the ancient textual variants:

    (1) I will cast her into a bed
    (2) I will cast her into prison
    (3) I will cast her into a furnace
    (4) I will cast her into illness
    (5) I will cast her into sorrow

    Clearly in the expression “I will cast her into X,” the X is supposed to be something negative, both from the context generally and from the parallel “into great tribulation,” but being cast into a bed doesn’t sound like such a bad gig. I’m guessing some of our mothers of newborns would like to be cast into a bed; maybe then they could get a nap. So ancient scribes substituted a more clearly negative fate for “bed.” Joseph was not restoring the original text; he was paralleling the ancient scribal attempt to make the verse sensical by substituting a worse word (“hell”) for “bed.” (In fact, “bed” is the original text; to be cast into a bed reflected a Semitic idiom for a bed of illness, but when scribes didn’t know the Semitic idiom and just reacted to the bare word itself, the text didn’t make any sense and they tried to fix it by substituting a worse word.)

    I don’t think this is a bad thing at all. Very rarely does the JST restore the original text, and so we should stop encouraging our people to think of the JST that way. The JST shows tremendous sensitivity to what is going on in the KJV. (How many of you have ever noticed the incongruity of the word “bed” in that passage? Yeah, I never had either.) If we insist on making restorations of original text the gold standard, the JST is going to be a spectacular failure. But if we see it as Joseph struggling to make sense of the English text of the KJV, it becomes (for me at least) a very impressive effort, especially given Joseph’s lack of education.

    (The article I published was “The Joseph Smith Translation and Ancient Texts of the Bible” in Dialogue about 1985, I think; a Google search will turn it up.)

  6. From an apologetics standpoint, I’ve found it’s almost always helpful to define what the Bible actually is. Evangelicals will maintain that “The Bible is the Word of God, and the Word of God is perfect, so if you don’t agree with my interpretation of the Bible, you disagree with God.” If we can establish that the Bible is a *record* of the Word of God, or how God spoke to man through the ages, it becomes easier to show that there are errors with the *record*, not that we have a problem with the Word of God.

  7. “For all his flaws, Joseph was a seeker.” That’s true, and I appreciate that about him. But he wasn’t such a fan of his friends’ seeking when it led them to differing opinions. For instance some of the Kirtland-era excommunications. Joseph was trying to hold a fledgling church together so squashing dissent was probably necessary, as he faced the inherent difficulty of the protestant tradition: how to resist endless fracturing when anyone can claim the authority of the Bible for his idiosyncratic set of views? Joseph was the seeker and seer of his movement, and would anyone else be granted that latitude? No. The Church became the centrally-led institution it is today because it modeled its leadership more-or-less after the idea of Peter as the Rock. What is my point? I guess it’s just ironic to me that Joseph’s earnest and respectable efforts to seek truth by wrestling directly with the best representation of God’s word he had (the KJV) morphed into a religious tradition that encourages seeking only insofar as it agrees with orthodoxy, and at times makes apostates of people whose seeking leads them outside that orthodoxy. And Joseph’s own leadership style laid the foundation for that kind of church.

    I appreciate the question of what the JST is. I could write several paragraphs about that (which would be too much for a blog comment), but I’ll just say it doesn’t rise to the level of scripture to me.

  8. “He picked up a quill and went to work.” Perhaps the first lesson we should take from the JST is a “go and do likewise” lesson. Joseph Smith as an example of scripture study.

    @Kevin Barney: (Of course) I’ve seen your work before and it is for me close enough to the definitive work on the JST that I’ve never felt the need to go further. I’d like to highlight one phrase from your comment above: “the X is supposed to be something negative, both from the context generally and from the parallel “into great tribulation,”” That simple argument from parallel structure (with “into great tribulation”) is such a good example of interpretive reading that goes beyond word for word translation.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Usually when people talk about what the JST represents they cherry pick passages to prove whatever their point is. I was invited to speak at the 2015 BYU NT Commentary Conference on 1 Corinthians, and so I did something I had never done before (and I haven’t seen anyone else do): I looked closely at *all* the most substantive JST revisions in a single book, 1 Corinthians. (I didn’t have time to absolutely every revision. The total number of verses revised in JST 1 Corinthians is in the low 60s; I focused on the 34 most substantive changes. That is more than the 29 passages included in the 1979 LDS edition of the Bible.) Looking at *every* JST change in a book rather than just cherry picking the best ones is a different experience, and yet I came away from the experience even more impressed with what Joseph did in that project. Here is the video if you would like to watch it:

    None of the revisions I reviewed made any sense as a restoration of original text. Rather, they fell into the following categories:

    1. Alternate translations without positing any change in underlying text. (I’m using “translations” neutrally here, as that could mean intralingual revisions of the KJV English.)

    2. Suspicion of italicized words.

    3. Harmonization with modern revelation (i.e., adding “Telestial” to 1 Cor. 15:40).

    4. Assimilation to other or better known wording.

    5. Midrashic commentary.

    I was deeply impressed by Joseph’s sensitivity to the text, and I was surprised by how frequently I was able to find modern English translations that used wording and strategies very similar to what Joseph did. This insistence that it’s mostly a textual restoration is causing us to miss some pretty impressive stuff. Joseph was a far more careful reader of the Bible than your average student in a contemporary GD class, that I can affirm for a certainty.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Here’s a fun example where the JST misapprehends what is going on in the text, but in doing so points out a significant KJV failing. 1 Cor. 6:12 (JST revisions capitalized):

    All THESE things are NOT lawful unto me, but all THESE things are not expedient. ALL things are NOT lawful for me, THEREFORE I will not be brought under the power of any.

    It’s easy to see what Joseph is doing here. Paul appears to contradict himself twice in short succession; adding the word “not” twice avoids this (apparent) contradiction. In fact, though, Paul is not contradicting himself twice, but rather quoting his opponents twice (and disagreeing with them). The “all things are lawful unto me” that is repeated twice is the opinion of Paul’s opponents, with which he takes issue.

    The problem here is that the KJV does not use quotation marks–at all. (It sometimes marks the beginnings of quotations with capitalization, which doesn’t help when the quote is at the beginning of a sentence.) Quotation marks as we know them were just starting to come into existence and the KJV did not use them, which makes this passage a mess to try to read coherently. See what a difference quotation marks make in the rendering of the CJB:

    You say, “For me, everything is permitted”? Maybe, but not everything is helpful. “For me, everything is permitted”? Maybe, but as far as I am concerned, I am not going to let anything gain control over me.

    The quotation marks make all the difference in the world in reading the passage correctly. So Joseph saw the problem and took a shot at solving it with a couple of negatives. In the process he points out a weakness in the archaic KJV–the lack of quotation marks. Sometimes we have to “translate” what Joseph is trying to accomplish in the JST by focusing more on the problem he was attempting to solve than the specific solution he came up with.

  11. Kevin, these comments are great. I like the new translation as an example of how to struggle with the scriptures, and to trust the Holy Ghost where the written word seems to diverge from the Holy Ghost. Sometimes if we read something in the scriptures that clearly contradicts with the witness of the spirit, we are so quick to want to revise our understanding of right and wrong instead of revising our understanding of the scriptures. Joseph Smith wasn’t like that in the new translation. If the scriptures said something that didn’t make sense, he was not afraid to say “that can’t be right, that must be a mistake.” I admire that.

  12. Kevin, thanks for your thoughtful and thorough additions to this discussion. Too bad we don’t have more gospel doctrine teachers like you!

    “Joseph was a far more careful reader of the Bible than your average student in a contemporary GD class, that I can affirm for a certainty.” Yes, he took it very seriously and knew his Bible well. When some cast him as a barely literate farmer, they mistake his deep and consistent delving into scripture.

  13. LOL, JKC!

    I love the JST, as a window into Joseph’s mind and inspiration — while most of us do “struggle to be seekers” and to understand God’s word for ourselves, if we have any confidence in Joseph Smith’s calling as a prophet, his struggles and answers have to carry weight for us. It is *not* a translation, and shouldn’t be treated as one, for the many reasons you present from Ehrman through others.

    I wish the general membership of the Church better understood its development and purposes. One of the things I struggled with as a Gospel Doctrine teacher responding to comments was what to do when a class member would notice a footnote and say “The JST says …” and then look up with an expression that seemed to say she had just settled an argument that nobody was having. I would try to draw out why she thought Joseph had made that emendation, but it was obvious that her only thought was that Joseph was taking dictation from God, so my question made no sense to her. Then I would try to draw out what difference it made to our understanding to have a verse worded X instead of Y — same blank stare. All that mattered was that the “JST said thus-and-such,” and we couldn’t even discuss the passage and its meaning the way we could discuss a KJV passage. God said it, Joseph recorded it, and that was as far as we could or should go. So I stopped trying to respond to such comments with anything more than “Thank you,” and called on the next hand raised.

  14. Thanks, Angela. Fascinating thoughts. I wonder when we will start to view the Book of Mormon in a similar light.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Oh man, Ardis, I can so relate to your comment. I have had that experience many dozens, if not hundreds of times. It’s so frustrating when the JST is cited as an ironclad conversation stopper rather than a conversation starter. Like you, I don’t think I’ve ever come up with a good way of dealing with that situation.

  16. Ardis: “and then look up with an expression that seemed to say she had just settled an argument that nobody was having. I would try to draw out why she thought Joseph had made that emendation, but it was obvious that her only thought was that Joseph was taking dictation from God, so my question made no sense to her.” +1. This is so familiar. Thanks for expressing it so well!

  17. Thanks for this Angela, a nice teaching tool.

  18. I’ve long thought the JST was fruitfully understood as a deconstruction of the Bible. That is the meaning of the verses in the KJV depended on things that weren’t included in the KJV text. Joseph Smith interrogated such elements in an inspired way. Sometimes that led to full revelations that ended up in the D&C. Sometimes that led to extended revelations that significantly expanded the text such as many things we find in Moses or the extended sections on Melchezedek. Sometimes it’s just asking a question about a word or meaning.

    As some of Kevin’s links show, this wasn’t new. Among Jewish writings there was the notion of a Targum or paraphrase of scripture. Originally these were only spoken and not written down. They thus represented a kind of oral tradition of scripture meaning. It’s also in places similar to an inspired Midrash which was a commentary on scripture or the oral tradition. The midrash were interestingly written as being in the margins of the text. (Often very large margins)

  19. Sidebottom says:

    This may be splitting hairs, but your post (and much of Ehrman’s work) misrepresents the evangelical view of “inerrancy”. Evangelicals allow for the possibility of translation and transmission errors in the text, claiming only that the ‘original autographs’ are ‘God-breathed’ and thus inerrant. Joseph Smith’s quote on the believing the Bible as it came from “pen of the original writers” as well as the “translated correctly” caveat in the 8th AOF are entirely consistent with this position.

  20. I am disappointed that the Church doesn’t encourage members to study other versions of the Bible that have been translated with greater accuracy and with language with is easier to understand. Although the KJV is great, the NKJV, the Amplified Bible, the New Living Translation, the NIV and other translations bring added clarity and would be much easier for our teens to read and understand.

  21. Actually it really only fundamentalism that believes in inerrancy or infallibility . Such words are not found in mainline doctrines or by the reformers. High views of the primacy of scripture are always affirmed; inerrancy.

  22. Jan, although there are some who oppose other translations the Bible as Literature class at BYU does introduce and use various translations (or did when I was in it). I think the sticking to KJV in the lesson manuals is due to three reasons: 1) BOM connection, 2) JST is based on it and 3) it’s the version that was used for the footnotes and topical guide done by Ludlow and McConkie. Maybe someday someone will tackle this and enrich our manuals but for now there seem to be other priorities.

  23. I remember being called on to read an Isaiah passage in GD and without thinking, I read from my Jewish Study Bible I had with me. You would have thought I was reading in tongues with the dumb looks I was getting. I had to explain myself. There’s something to be said for beginning with the same text for everyone in the class, but once I explained what I had and how it helped explain Isaiah, I got a lot of nods and “oh yesses”. A few came to me after to see what to order for themselves, but it was a small minority. When I teach, I begin with the KJV and then add from the JST, BOM, and other modern translations as needed.

  24. Jenny Harrison says:

    In 1947, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the Qumran caves, about 25 kilometers east of Jerusalem, fragments of all of the Old Testaments books (except for Esther) were found in these scrolls dating back to the 2nd Century B.C. The most significant find was a complete Hebrew copy of the book of Isaiah. When this scroll from the 2nd Century B.C. was compared with the oldest known text of Isaiah from approximately 900 A.D., scholars were amazed to find the text of Isaiah virtually unchanged with 95% accuracy in over 1,000 years of copying! The majority of the 5% variations between the manuscripts consisted chiefly of slips of the pen and obvious spelling errors that did not affect the message of the text. If people were changing the text of the bible, wouldn’t Isaiah be the one they changed the most due to the difficulty in understanding it? (

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