The Prior Authority of Tradition

This originated as an off-the-cuff reply this morning, in this thread. I thought it came out rather well.

James Tissot, The Lord's Prayer, 1896

The Lord’s Prayer (1896), by James Tissot (

I think you’re overlooking the very crux of the matter. “Sola scriptura” is more than just a claim that Scripture is an infallible standard: it’s a claim that it is the only infallible standard. And if we stand back at A.D. 50 — there is then no New Testament to hold as any sort of infallible standard. What is this “Scripture” and what is this “Tradition” we are referring to? “Scripture,” to the earliest Christians, was the Old Testament. And the message of Christ was entirely oral. And Christians accepted this message as infallible — because it was the Word of God — the word of the Word Made Flesh Himself.

So from the very beginning, Christians accepted a message and teaching in addition to Scripture. And this is “Tradition” — what was handed down by Christ to His Apostles and by the Apostles to their disciples — and it was infallible, and it preceded the New Testament. Why were the writings of the Apostles and their disciples enshrined as “Scripture” in the first place? Because they preserved in writing the word and teachings of Christ and His Apostles, the literal Word of God, that had been preserved and passed down orally for several decades. Why were the letters of Paul considered infallible and held as Scripture? Because the teachings of Paul himself, orally and in person, were first considered infallible. The very authority of the New Testament depends on the prior authority of the word of Jesus and the Apostles, and on this authority continuing as that word was communicated to the next generations of Christians orally — otherwise why should the Gospels of Mark and of Luke — who are believed to have been disciples of the Apostles who did not witness the earthly life and ministry of Christ firsthand, but who recorded their accounts from the teachings of their teachers — be held as authoritative?

James Tissot, The Sermon on the Mount, 1896

The Sermon on the Mount (1896), by James Tissot (

So the claim that “there was no infallible ‘Tradition’ for the Early Church” fails on its face: there was, and must be. Yes, we believe the New Testament was “God-breathed” by the authority of the Holy Spirit, much as God spoke through the Old Testament prophets. But if we believe that Jesus Christ was God Incarnate, that He, the Word of God, walked among us and gave His Word to men, and that the authors of the New Testament were firsthand and secondhand witnesses to this Word — then we must believe that that Word itself, spoken by God Himself, was authoritative and infallible, and that it did not cease to be authoritative and infallible when it was the Apostles and their disciples repeating it and setting it to writing. The alternative is absurd: Did the Word of Jesus carry no authority until decades later, when it was “God-breathed” by the Holy Spirit to men who did not even know Him? Did Paul, and Peter, and John, and James, not teach by the authority of the Holy Spirit in their oral teachings, but only have His authority when they set those teachings to writing?

Fra Angelico, St. Peter Preaching in the Presence of St. Mark

St. Peter Preaching in the Presence of St. Mark, by Fra Angelico (c. 1433) (Wikipedia)

So the Protestant claim of “sola scriptura” is not merely a claim that “Scripture is an infallible standard”: it must somehow explain how Scripture became the only infallible standard; how the Word of God spoken by Jesus and passed down by the Apostles ceased to be the Word of God except in the parts of it that were put to writing. We have in the New Testament Church an advantage that the Old Testament people of God never had: where the Old Testament prophets spoke and wrote only by the revelation of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles and writers of the New Testament spoke and wrote from their personal encounters of the Word of God Made Flesh. To limit the Word of God to only what is written is to call into question the essentially public witness of the Church: to say that only those writers, in their writings, could speak with the authority of God, who experienced a private revelation of words “God-breathed” by the Holy Spirit.

Le Sueur, The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus

The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus (1649), by Eustache Le Sueur.

So no, once again, the onus is on Protestants to demonstrate why anyone in the Early Church would have reverted to “Scripture alone” as an infallible standard, after the Word of God Made Flesh had lived among them and taught them, and after His Apostles and their disciples continued to pass on those teachings. We see no note of “Tradition” in the earliest of the Church Fathers because they took such teachings for granted: what we see instead is the personal testimony that “Peter and Paul gave their witness among us and “I sat at the feet of the blessed Polycarp as he recalled hearing John share stories of Our Lord”. This, though it was not called by that name until late in the second century, is “Tradition”; and it is up to Protestants to demonstrate why the Early Church should no longer have held it as authoritative (for it is plain that they did).

31 thoughts on “The Prior Authority of Tradition

  1. Yes! This is why I knew I must return to the Catholic Church even though I also know many non-Catholics who are on fire for Christ. I need the whole Church, from the beginning and She began before anyone wrote the New Testament. Thank you. Drusilla Barron (

  2. Pingback: Bluster without truth or substance | Reformation500

  3. Boy, nothing gets these guys quite so flustered as a Catholic with a solid argument, eh? I’m impressed with the grace and thoughtfulness with which you’ve handled the barrage of cranky ad hominems over at Ref 500. You’ve been kind, and simply insisted that they address the actual points you’re making… well done, and keep up the good work!

    • Ryan — I didn’t see a “solid argument” from Joseph. Perhaps you could show me one? And nor am I flustered. And nor have I seen any “ad hominems” at Ref 500, perhaps you could show me one?

        • I even allow that I believe “Roman Catholicism” is one of the most harmful in the history of Christianity. But I am respectful of the persons, even though, as I’ve told Joseph, I believe be is spreading errors, and I believe the Roman hierarchy needs to own up and take responsibility for its historical evils, instead of hiding behind the obviously untrue masks of “perfection” and “holiness”.

          • I’m curious, John, how the “Roman hierarchy” could “own up and take responsibility for its historical evils” in a way that would satisfy you. From where I’m standing, it appears that the Church accepts her responsibility for atrocities in the (even recent) past, and makes no claim to either the Church herself, or individual Catholics, being “perfect” in “holiness.” The Church, after all, is a hospital for sinners rather than a museum for saints.

          • John, you’ve been anything but respectful of the persons. Your tone has been positively nasty. But, as I’ve read your intro over at Ref 500, it seems you’ve a real personal bone to pick with the Catholic Church, so perhaps that explains it a bit…

            It’s unclear to me, from your bio, how long it’s been since you went back to the Reformed word. I myself was adamantly Reformed once, even studying to be a minister in a Reformed church, so allow me to “spoil the surprise” for you, shall we say: the Calvinist world isn’t any more pure or free from corruption than the Roman hierarchy. I’ve known plenty of Reformed ministers who ended up being guilty of everything you can find in the Catholic world (sexual abuse and cover-ups, financial improprieties, lies, etc.)

            But then, our Lord promised us that the wheat and the tares would grow up together. We don’t need a denominational leadership that’s free from sin… no, what we need is what our Lord promised us: His Flesh and Blood (John 6).

            Come home, John. Our Lord is waiting for you in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar, and He longs for you to return.

          • Ryan — While I am terse in my writing sometimes, I would very much be surprised that anything I’ve said is “nasty”. I think it’s important to be direct and honest. If you feel those traits are somehow inappropriate, then that’s your problem and not mine.

            However, I’m not the issue. Rome is where the history is. And it would be hard pressed for you to find anything more “nasty” in history than the Inquisition, in its various forms. I’m wondering why you call out little old me on “nasty” while giving Rome a pass on the Inquisition.

            Further, I’ve documented Rome’s centuries-long “anti-Judaism”, and a work by David Kertzer, “The Popes Against the Jews”, which led to the nastiest of all forms of anti-Semitism, for which Rome claims no responsibility at all.


            But it was Rome that instituted the clothing patches and the ghetto — among other things — which were staples of Nazi policy toward the Jews. And yet, you take offense with me, and give Rome a pass.

            Here’s another nasty: Sexual abuse will cripple someone for life. I am certain that sexual abuse happens in all churches in one shape or another. But that’s not the question. Rome is unique in that it added a whole dimension of “systematic cover up”. I know that it is a human response to want to hide such things in shame. But Rome had a policy to cover up, not to tell the police, of what literally amounted to “obstruction of justice”.

            When you cite “sexual abuse” in Reformed churches, you can only be talking about isolated incidences (wherever, and however many there may be). But with Rome, there were systematic cover-ups, all according to documented policy. That’s the key difference.

            * * *

            Now, how would you characterize this comment? Is it “nasty”? Now, what have I ever done other than report on factual instances of Rome’s “nastiness”. And point out the double standard that you hold in giving official Rome a pass for all these things, and calling me out for “nasty”.

            Further, on top of all these things, all the scum-of-the-earth popes, you give everything a pass, based on such statements as CCC 796, which holds that “The Roman Catholic Church is the spotless bride of the spotless Lamb”. Therefore, you will never, ever, find any pope “apologizing” for any official act of the Roman Catholic Church.

            I’m not even going to begin to cite the doctrinal differences I have with Rome. No doubt you’ve seen them if you’ve looked through my site, and I’ve got way more at Triablogue.

            Your use of John 6 is demonstrably a case of eisegesis, clearly a faulty way to think about these things, reading back later Roman understanding into an earlier text that had nothing to do with the Lord’s supper,

            There is NO WAY I would ever go back to the cess pool that is Rome. (And if you think I am nasty in saying so, consider the sources I have pointed to in this comment here, it is that which I am describing).

          • Boy oh boy, John, I don’t even know where to begin… Your reply is so over-the-top and so full of logical fallacies and incorrect assertions that an adequate response would really take far more time that I’m willing to invest in this conversation. Here’s a few bullet points for your consideration, however:

            a) Your nastiness actually is your problem, rather than being mine. I assume that you write online in the hopes of winning people over to your position, right? My mom used to always have a saying: “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”. I’d suggest that, if you truly want anyone reading this exchange to take your position seriously, you stop dousing Joseph in vinegar…

            b) I have never–not in this thread, nor anywhere else–given Rome a “pass” on historical injustices. Your assertion that I have is absurd, and a total non sequitur from anything that I’ve said here.

            c) There are plenty of examples of popes apologizing for all sorts of wrongdoing. Your assertion that they haven’t is proven false by Pope John Paul II alone, who publicly apologized for all sorts of official acts of the Church. (It would have taken you about 10 seconds on Google to fact check that assertion, so I’m really disappointed that you didn’t).

            d) Your use of CCC 796 is just bizarre. I can’t even begin to imagine how you think citing that text supports your point.

            e) To go back a bit and address sexual abuse: no, there are currently Reformed denominations that are involved in “systematic cover ups”. Again, I don’t want to spoil the surprise for you, but in leaving Rome you didn’t leave behind corruption…

            And, well, I’ll stop there… Seriously though, come home. I’ll be praying for you to return to the joy and peace that are found in the Sacraments.

      • John: I would not have charged you with ad hominem attacks in the formal sense, but you definitely impugn my academic merits, allege that I am “guilty” of various errors, and dismiss my words as “bluster without truth or substance.” I realize that these are time-honored hallmarks of polemic writing in the Protestant tradition, and I don’t take offense, but it does come across as an attack as much to me personally as to my arguments.

  4. Ryan:

    d) Your use of CCC 796 is just bizarre. I can’t even begin to imagine how you think citing that text supports your point.

    That’s because you don’t understand what’s going on as thoroughly as you think you do.

    c) There are plenty of examples of popes apologizing for all sorts of wrongdoing. Your assertion that they haven’t is proven false by Pope John Paul II alone, who publicly apologized for all sorts of official acts of the Church.

    The one thing that is NEVER done, though, and the one thing that is needed, is for some pope or council to apologize for THE SINS OF THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH. See below on “mental reservation” – read carefully and see what’s actually being apologized for, and who’s taking responsibility for what. And who’s blaming whom.

    (It would have taken you about 10 seconds on Google to fact check that assertion, so I’m really disappointed that you didn’t).

    Oh, duh. You are the one making baseless assumptions here. “John Paul II alone” apologized for the “the sinfulness of her children” or this: Although she is holy because of her incorporation into Christ, the Church does not tire of doing penance: before God and man she always acknowledges as her own her sinful sons and daughters.” But “she” never acknowledges any sins of her own. Never confesses her own sins.

    Here is how that cashes out. This sort of “non-apology” that people thoughtlessly take to be a genuine apology is the standard method of operation. I’ve done dozens of blog posts on this kind of thing. Here are a couple more:

    This is where CCC 796 is one side of the coin. “The Church” is “spotless”, so there is never anything to apologize for. Elsewhere, check how intimately Rome considers “the hierarchy” to be “The Church”.

    On the other side of the coin is sincere-sounding language, but the method employed is a Jesuitical technique called “mental reservation”, in which you hear an apology when no genuine apology is offered.

    I despise this kind of dishonesty, especially because so many people fall for it.

    For Rome, this is “the doctrine of ‘The Church’”. In polite company, in Scriptures, this is shifting responsibility elsewhere. This is failure to take responsibility for one’s own failings. Forgiveness comes “if you confess your sins …” “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”

    Here is a hypocritical angle: Rome requires you to enunciate each of your sins – at least we pre-Vatican 2 types had to do it that way. But Rome makes no confession at all for its own sins — it merely shifts them to “her children”.

    Your reply is so over-the-top and so full of logical fallacies and incorrect assertions that an adequate response would really take far more time that I’m willing to invest in this conversation.

    So your boast here really shows that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    • Man, John, do you read your comments before you post them? Brother, you write like you’re applying for a job making Chick tracts… I’m praying for you.

        • Oh no, I read the entire thing. Reading an entire comment before responding is, after all, the courteous thing to do. I was just being terse in my writing style…you can appreciate that, can’t you, John?

          • Ryan, I’m not going to get into a sniping match with you. The fact is, I take the posture that I take vis-a-vis Rome only after long and arduous study on my part. But neither of us is going to be able to read all of the source materials. We have to trust someone.

            Now, if you want to say, “Rome is doctrinally pure, and infallibility doesn’t extend to other things”, that’s fine. But you should consider that the same group of people who were covering up the sex scandals were writing the new “Catechism”. The way they handled the one COULDN’T have had any effect on the way they handled the other. And the same group of people who were writing the anti-Jewish laws and confining Jews to ghettos were the same ones writing the medieval councils and the council of Trent. The one couldn’t have affected the other.

            And the non-apologies of John Paul II really were in deference to the pure and holy character of the Roman Hierarchy all through the ages.

            I’m not the important one in all of this. I’m just reporting. You decide.

          • And really, the same ones promising safe passage to John Huss were the same ones burning him at the stake. The Reformation was a good thing and it is the Reformers who are worthy of trust, not the Romans.

          • John,

            This is being nitpicky, but that’s not quite accurate. It was Emperor Sigismund who granted Hus safe passage. After he arrived and was tried (and refused to cooperate), the bishops convinced the emperor to revoke the safe passage — which he did voluntarily. And of course — though it’s only a technicality, and I don’t pretend it in any way mitigates the Church’s culpability — it’s the secular power that carries out the death penalty, not the Church. I do agree that Hus was mistreated.

            Again, you are making a very wide generalization here — which is one of the central problems of the Reformation, as I see it. Sure, some leaders of the Catholic Church, even some of the popes, were corrupt to the teeth and dastardly human beings. But does it then follow that no Romans are worthy of trust? Does it follow that just because you agree with the teachings of a few of the Reformers, all the Reformers were worthy of trust?

            One of the central theses of the Reformation — even if it was often unspoken — was that the Catholic Church was wholly, thoroughly, irredeemably corrupt and thus no longer the Church of Christ. This seems to be an attitude you’ve fully imbibed. But can you honestly, in accord with the Christian gospel, say that because some leaders were corrupt, because some committed gross abuses, that the whole, thorough body of the Church was apostate? And if so, can you explain how a few bad shepherds led away all the flock?

            God bless you, and His peace be with you.

  5. From here:

    58.20 Cardinal Connell explained the concept of mental reservation to the Commission in the following way:

    “Well, the general teaching about mental reservation is that you are not permitted to tell a lie. On the other hand, you may be put in a position where you have to answer, and there may be circumstances in which you can use an ambiguous expression realising that the person who you are talking to will accept an untrue version of whatever it may be – permitting that to happen, not willing that it happened, that would be lying. It really is a matter of trying to deal with extraordinarily difficult matters that may arise in social relations where people may ask questions that you simply cannot answer. Everybody knows that this kind of thing is liable to happen. So, mental reservation is, in a sense, a way of answering without lying.”

  6. you definitely impugn my academic merits, allege that I am “guilty” of various errors, and dismiss my words as “bluster without truth or substance.”

    Joseph, I’m sorry if you feel that I’ve impugned you. But when you choose to write in public, you open your writings up to criticism. And frankly, I admit that I speak bluntly about these things. But I’ve run into too many recent converts, who, frankly, don’t know at a granular level about how Rome operates, (see my comment about “mental reservation” and “non-apology apologies” above), and you end up thinking that you’ve found some kind of unknown jewel or something.

    And then the conversation goes something like this: “Oh, I used to think the way you did, until I found out that Roman Catholicism really doesn’t believe too much differently from what you believe; I’ve just now found “the fullness” … Really, you’ve decided to buy into a truckload of Roman cultural accretions that made their way into church practice in the 4th and 5th centuries and later. The Eastern churches don’t recognize all of that, by any stretch.

    It’s a communication issue. I’m not trying to “win flies”. I’m trying to speak the truth about these things, boldly, and in a way that does not permit confusion.

    And I’ve documented every instance as well. It’s not as if I throw unsupported statements out. Read through the heavily-documented Triablogue posts or the Beggars All or Ref500 posts – you have more or less spouted Roman apologetic fluff about Peter and authority in the early church, without looking at any detail at all, and accepting Rome’s word over the detail. That brings us back to where Stephen started – it’s Rome’s supposed authority vs the actual history of things.

    I realize that these are time-honored hallmarks of polemic writing in the Protestant tradition,

    There’s a difference to what I do, and the way that Rome has handled these things over the centuries. I’d like to ask you to read James Swan’s piece on what Roman Catholics have done to Luther, beginning at the highest levels of the Roman Church at the time of the Reformation, and see who’s “time-honored polemics” are dishonest.

    I wouldn’t ask you to read all that, but just skim through it to get the flavor of it. I’ve been direct, but I’ve not manipulated any facts – which is what largely happened to Luther in the years after the Reformation, and it’s been happening ever since.

    • John,

      When I said you had impugned my academic merits, that was a statement of fact, not an accusation. You very clearly said, in your invective about my “bluster”:

      “You call yourself an ‘academic’ but …”

      And when I said that you were following well in the Protestant polemical tradition, that was actually a backhanded compliment. 😉 I’m sure, if you’ve read any of the Reformers at all, you know very well how full their texts are of very personal and low-down insults against the pope, bishops, and Catholic theologians.

      You’re welcome to criticize my writings, and as I said, I’m not offended. The comment above was only a reply to your dubious, “Ad hominems? What ad hominems?”

      Your tactic, through and through — and I wonder if you even realize you are doing it — is to take the work, or the foible, or the sin, of a single Catholic, and apply to all Catholics. The link you cite regarding slander against Luther is the (pretty inane) work of a single Catholic and not any sort of example of “what largely happened to Luther in the years after the Reformation.” As far as I can tell, he’s still quite popular among Protestants, and even many Catholics respect him. I do.

      Likewise, you take the comments of Bishop Connell attempting to justify his lying and somehow generalize that “all Catholics lie bold-facedly and doctrinally justify it!” I hope you realize how riddled with fallacies such logic is.

      And once again, you are bound and determined to shove me into your generalization of feeble-minded Catholic converts and apologists. I hope you are realizing that I don’t fit that very well.

      God bless you, and His peace be with you.

    • Hey,John!Dude,you are AWESOME!!–I myself have been roman catholicism for over 25 years,and I’ve pretty much reached all the same conclusions about this bogus, contrived, man-centered institution as you have(as an African American,my recent discovery of pope Nicholas V’s papal bull ” Dum Diversas ” more or less put the nail in the coffin of institutional catholicism for me;there is NO DOUBT in my mind at this religious system instituted the European slave trade–NONE,John,and NO ONE has been able to refute that.Also,David L.Kertzler’s”The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara”gave an extra whack to the hammer,if you will,so as far as I’m concerned, there’s really not a whole lot anyone can say to convince me of any supposed”moral authority”roman catholicism can claim:IT HAS NONE,PERIOD.Now,I’ve known many wonderful people who adhere to the catholic church and I love them dearly;but sense is that they are great people in spite of catholicism,not because of it.At any rate,John…Nice to meet you, bro,and God bless you!(By the way,here’s another question I’ve ask that no catholic has answered to my satisfaction: Since they glean most of their Marian dogmas for the so-called”Protoevangelium of James”,why isn’t it included within the received Canon of the New Testament? Wasn’t it written early enough?)—PEACE IN CHRIST,Brother John!!

      • Thanks for the comment, Laurence.

        If you’ve studied the Catholic Church as much as you say, then you are surely aware that the Church and her leaders have done both bad and good with regard to the issue of slavery and the slave trade. Here is a decent overview of some of the landmarks. The Church accepts and acknowledges that Catholics and even popes have been a part of such evils; but others have also been a part of bringing those evils to an end.

        To your question about the Protoevangelium of James: That text is an historical testimony to belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary, not the source of that belief. It provides us with firm evidence that that belief was already current and widespread by the time that document was penned, probably in the early second century. It also informs us about traditions about the life of Mary, some of which have become current in the Catholic imagination, namely the names of her parents and the circumstances of her birth and early life. But the document is not scriptural and holds no binding authority for Catholics or for Catholic doctrine.

        You say that the Church “gleans” “most of” her Marian dogmata from that text. This is simply untrue. Remove that text; pretend it never existed; and its absence would hardly be noticed. Nearly every one of the Church Fathers vehemently defended the perpetual virginity of Mary — with the only exception of Tertullian, whose questioning of that tradition only affirms all the more that it was widely believed in his time. With reference to “most of” the Marian dogmata: None of the other major dogmata about Mary even refer to that text.

        As to why the Protoevangelium of James is not Scripture: (1) It is almost certainly apocryphal and pseudepigraphical, and was not written by an Apostle or an “Apostolic man” (i.e. it was not written by the James it claims to have been written by); (2) it was written after the close of the Apostolic era. To my knowledge, it was never even a serious contender for inclusion in the New Testament.

        May God bless you, and the peace of Christ be with you.

    • The man was convicted of a crime by a legitimate and recognized legal authority and duly sentenced to the accepted punishment for that crime. Let’s not be melodramatic. The only injustice there was the revocation of Hus’s safe passage — which was both offered and renounced by Emperor Sigismund. Ecclesial officials did persuade the emperor to renounce it, but he did so of his own initiative, and without such they could not legally have touched Hus. These were not barbarians and this was not “murder”: this was all entirely “by the book.” Hus knew the danger he faced, and could not have been very surprised anyway. “For crying out loud.”

      • Wow.I can only shake my head in astonished horror than any presumed christian would that burning a fellow christian alive (or any human being, for that matter.)should not be considered barbaric. But, no matter; in a democracy one is “allowed” to think what one will, and indeed, freely voice those thoughts, a luxury the Roman Catholic Church clearly thought Hus didn’t deserve, and obviously a mindset yet prevalent among many. I am about to read Thomas A.Fudge’s book, ” The Trial of Jan Hus”and find out for myself what exactly warranted Hus’ murder. (And yes, I will ALWAYS view him as being murdered by the Roman Catholic Church.There is absolutely NO mandate given in the Scriptures for Christians to kill fellow Christians, no matter how vehemently one may disagree with them.PERIOD.) Mr.Fudge is considered one of the foremost experts in medieval and reformation Christianity, specializing on Jan Hus and Hussite history; let us assume that he will be far more knowledgeable on this issue than you or I, Joseph.At any rate, the ugly sordid manner in which the Roman Catholic Church has dealt with dissenters is no secret, so let’s not pretend it is, Joseph.Simply put, THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH MURDERED PEOPLE WHO DARE TO QUESTION ITS DOGMAS, PERIOD.

        • Thanks for your kind comment, Laurence. Let us also, then, shake our head in astonished horror at the likes of such presumed Christians as John Calvin, who likewise presided over the execution of heretics by burning at the stake. It was a different time, and as I said, burning at the stake was the accepted and universal punishment for heresy, carried out by Catholics and Protestants alike, as it had been for many centuries. We may not agree today, but we can try to understand: Heresy was seen as a grave threat not only to public order, but to the salvation of the many people a heretic might lead astray. The logic was precisely the same as our rationale for capital punishment today: Some people pose a grave threat to the public by continuing to live. If this be murder, then all capital punishment is murder. God bless you, and His peace be with you.

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