Jesus’s house? The abysmal state of “Biblical archaeology”

I was aware that the field of Biblical archaeology was vaguely dubious, at least insofar as it was devoted to finding archaeological evidence of things said in the Bible. Well, we know that much of the “history” claimed in the Bible is dubious (there was, for instance, no Exodus), so that part of the field is tendentious. But clearly scientifically motivated excavations can be of great value in illuminating the era in which Biblical events are thought to have taken place, or about when and how the Bible was composed (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls). But, sadly, at least some of the field is devoted to buttressing an ancient book of fiction.

And that appears to be the case for the “discovery” of a first-century home in Nazareth, Israel that has been widely touted as being the likely residence of young Jesus. That this house was the domicile of carpenter Joseph, his virgin wife Mary, and young Jesus is about as likely as the “Biblical anthropology” study of three random and ancient skulls from Israel tells us what Jesus looked like. In other words, both are exercises in confirmation bias.

The article in question, “Has Jesus’ Nazareth House been found?” is by Ken Dark, director of the Research Centre for Late Antiquity and Byzantine Studies at the University of Reading, and appeared in last year’s Biblical Archaeology Review, the online organ of the Biblical Archaeology Society (reference below, no free link, but there’s a short summary here and a longer one at LiveScience). The finding was touted widely (just like the new reconstruction of Jesus’s appearance), even showing up at, where it got this headline:

Screen shot 2015-12-17 at 9.38.02 AM

Yeah, and all the air molecules in this room may, by chance, move to one side of the room.

The whole enterprise, both the original paper and the LiveScience piece, conflates possibility with probability: witness the headline above and the title of Dark’s paper. Both ignore the possibility, for instance, that the Jesus-person is pure fiction, and even if he did live as some messianic rabbi, never lived in Nazareth and wasn’t the son of Joseph and Mary.  Remember that Mary is said to have gone from Nazareth to Bethlehem (the Birthplace) and then back to Nazareth, where Jesus grew up—but given the confusing Biblical narrative, even that is contested by some. Nevertheless, the fact that there was a real Jesus, and if he lived he grew up in Nazareth, are things assumed to be true in both articles.

Dark’s piece rests on historical examination of documents, of accounts by pilgrims to the Holy Land, and on his own examination of an excavation site below a convent. That Nazareth site revealed the following:

  • There was a Byzantine church with mosaic floors and other fancy trappings built during the “Crusader period,” as well as two early Roman-era tombs and two rectilinear “courtyard houses” dated by the pottery they contained to the first century A.D. Here’s one of the houses, whose structure was preserved when the churches were built.


  • The pottery in the houses contained limestone vessels like the one below. Dark notes that limestone was considered a “pure” container under Jewish law, and “were popular in Jewish communities at this time.” He doesn’t say whether such vessels were also used by Romans or other “gentiles.”

(From paper): Israel Museum, Jerusalem STAYING PURE. Limestone vessels were common in first-century Israel because they were not subject to impurity according to Jewish law; thus a stone cup like the one pictured here could be continually reused rather than destroyed, unlike vessels of pottery that had contracted impurity.

  • From this evidence Dark and others conclude that the houses were part of a small Roman-Jewish town served by between three and seven springs.
  • Excavation of the nearby area of Sepphoris revealed a more Roman panoply of pottery and other artifacts. From this the authors conclude—and I suppose this is reasonable, though it’s above my pay grade—that Nazareth was a largely Jewish town near a Roman town, and there was no “close connection” between the settlements.

So far so good. But why—even assuming that Jesus was real and grew up in Nazaret—would he have lived in one of these two houses? Here’s what Dark says (my emphasis):

The first-century evidence that we do have from Sepphoris suggests an urban center with an administrative function, domestic occupation and public buildings. It may have been relatively cosmopolitan, in the sense that it was open to Roman provincial culture, but it remained a Jewish community.

By contrast, Nazareth was a local center without the trappings of Roman culture, perhaps analogous to nearby Capernaum or Chorazin in its facilities and scale, rather than to Sepphoris (which, incidentally, is not mentioned in the New Testament). The description in the Gospels of the Nazareth synagogue (Mark 6:1–6; Matthew 13:54–58; Luke 4:16–30) is exactly the sort of building we would expect in an Early Roman provincial “small town.” Such a small town was also exactly the sort of place where one might expect to find a rural craftsman—a tekton (Mark 6:3;Matthew 13:55)—like Joseph.

This evidence suggests that Jesus’ boyhood was spent in a conservative Jewish community that had little contact with Hellenistic or Roman culture. (It is extremely unlikely to be the sort of place where, as some have argued, one would have encountered “cynic” philosophy.)

Then Dark admits that “none of this, of course, has any explicit connection with Jesus.” But he finds his evidence not from the archaeology itself, but from the fact travelers seven centuries later regarded the site as Jesus’s boyhood home (my emphasis):

A seventh-century pilgrim account known as De Locus Sanctis, written by Adomnán of Iona, describes two large churches in the center of Nazareth. One is identifiable as the Church of the Annunciation, located just across the modern street from the Sisters of Nazareth Convent. The other stood nearby and was built over vaults that also contained a spring and the remains of two tombs,tumuli in Adomnán’s “Insular Latin.” Between these two tombs, Adomnán tells us, was the house in which Jesus was raised. From this is derived the more recent name for the church that Adomnán describes: the Church of the Nutrition, that is, “the church of the upbringing of Christ,” the location of which has been lost.

At the Sisters of Nazareth Convent there was evidence of a large Byzantine church with a spring and two tombs in its crypt. The first-century house described at the beginning of this article, probably a courtyard house, stands between the two tombs. Both the tombs and the house were decorated with mosaics in the Byzantine period, suggesting that they were of special importance, and possibly venerated. Only here have we evidence for all the characteristics that De Locus Sanctis ascribes to the Church of the Nutrition, including the house.

And in the final paragraph Dark makes a special plea for this to be Jesus’s house, because a). “there’s no good reason to dismiss it out of hand” and b). Because people believed it was Jesus’s home:
Was this the house where Jesus grew up? It is impossible to say on archaeological grounds. On the other hand, there is no good archaeological reason why such an identification should be discounted. What we can say is that this building was probably where the Byzantine church builders believed Jesus had spent his childhood in Nazareth.

Well, if everything that people believed was taken as truth, the shroud of Our Lady of Guadalupe would indeed have been miraculously found on a hilltop in Mexico, and The Dome of the Rock was where Mohamed landed on his reputed Night Journey.

I don’t doubt that the excavation described by Dark is interesting, and may even denote a Jewish settlement separated by culture and faith from a nearby Roman one. What I do doubt is whether it was Jesus’s home. And I question a mindset that desperately needs to shoehorn this discovery into the narrative of the New Testament.


Dark, K. 2015. Has Jesus’ Nazareth house been found? Biblical Archaeol. Rev. 41:02.


  1. Joseph Stans
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Ken Dark, director of the Research Centre for Late Antiquity and Byzantine Studies at the University of Reading sounds like he wandered off the trail and found a good stand of weed and sat down took a couple of bong hits while writing about this.

    That is not a bad thing. But he ought to try for Terry Pratchett quality in his fantasy.

  2. gordon hill
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    So much can be gleaned from archeological artifact… but no more. Whether Jesus lived is in dispute… even if he did, what he said is disputatious, too… still, there are biblical scholars who maintain a sense of reason. I like John Dominic Crossan’s God and Empire which shows how the virgin birth and Jesus as god ideas were later additions (they don’t appear in the first gospel mark) in Matthew and Luke to equate Jesus with Caesar, who was also a god born of a virgin. (If I have the details wrong it’s because I was in a hurry to write this and can’t find my copy of Crossan’s book)

    • dan bertini
      Posted December 17, 2015 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      There is way too much evidence that Jesus is a mythical character and his story has been plagiarized over and over again from ancient Egyptian texts. Just read Tom Harpur’s Pagan Christ. It is all in there.

      • Gordon Hill
        Posted December 17, 2015 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

        Unless Tom Harpur has access to sources unknown to others, “It’s not all there.” There are many serious scholars whose life work has been to make sense of the Jesus phenomenon. The Westar Institute — “scholarship on the history and evolution of the Christian tradition” — being one at with a group of more than 150 Fellows from many areas, religious and otherwise at

        Their focus is on Christianity. That’s more important than whether he lived. Same too with others… Buddha… Lao Tzu…

        • dan bertini
          Posted December 18, 2015 at 8:47 am | Permalink

          The question here is whether or not there is a historical Jesus. And there is absolutely no evidence that there is any historical truth in scripture! It is all myth and plagiarized myth at that. On top of that is the basic fact that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Still waiting for that two thousand and sixteen years later.

          • Gordon Hill
            Posted December 18, 2015 at 9:20 am | Permalink

            As I read it the question here is about junk archaeology, not Jesus’s existence. Assuming Jesus was a real person, the idea that his home could be located is junk.

            As for the existence of Jesus, I defer you to scholars who have studied the ‘evidence’ which may support his existence. You will find disagreement within the community of scholars. One question is whether the writings of Josephus are correct.

            While the question of Jesus being a living person is interesting, that’s not the point here… for me.

            • GBJames
              Posted December 18, 2015 at 9:45 am | Permalink

              Assuming Beowulf was a real person, the idea that his home could be located is junk.

              This is certainly true. Still… it doesn’t matter that there’s no real evidence that Beowulf was anything other than a fictional character? Surely it amplifies the junk-ness of the search for his house.

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted December 18, 2015 at 11:02 am | Permalink

                Do not understand the relevance of this. The two issues here are the existence of Jesus and the location of his home.

                First, the existence of Jesus is supported only by Josephus and Tacticus. The question is how relevant this is to the origins and evolution of Christianity. The same holds in other religions, especially Taoism, where there seems to be overwhelming support for the view that Lao Tzu did not exist. Mox nix.

                As for this discovery being widely reported, I would add, “by questionable sources.” One problem I have with much religious “scholarship” is that it flows from a premise in search of support instead of an hypothesis to be tested.

                That said, there is much to consider regarding the origins and evolution of all religions, especially Christianity… for those who are interested.

              • GBJames
                Posted December 18, 2015 at 11:20 am | Permalink

                The matter of questionable existence of a character is not irrelevant to the “junk-ness” of the archaeological search for his house. Atop all of the other “junk” you recognize, another bit is added.

  3. GBJames
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 10:58 am | Permalink


    • rickflick
      Posted December 17, 2015 at 12:08 pm | Permalink


      • Ken Phelps
        Posted December 17, 2015 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        Sounds like the battery’s dead. It’s barely turning over.

        • rickflick
          Posted December 17, 2015 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

          Got jumpers?

  4. Kevin
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    So they found a house that’s been empty for 2000 years. I think the real meaning escapes them.

    • GBJames
      Posted December 17, 2015 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      On archaeological grounds you can’t rule out the belief that Doctor Who didn’t visit the spot in his Tardis.

      • GBJames
        Posted December 17, 2015 at 11:09 am | Permalink

        “…Who didn’t visited…”


        • Ken Phelps
          Posted December 17, 2015 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

          Like most writing on the subject of religion, your post made an equivalent amount of sense when it said the opposite of what you meant. BibSci is forgiving that way.

  5. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    The two birth of Jesus narratives in the New Testament are utterly incompatible (as are also the crucifixion and resurrection narratives).

    Only in Luke do the parents, J&M, go from Nazareth to Bethlehem and back, whereas in Matthew, J&M were in Bethlehem all along and then fled to Nazareth to avoid King Herod’s homicidal search for infants born in Bethlehem.

    Both narratives have more modest conflicts with known history. Much is known of Herod’s specific atrocities, but there is no record of his attempting (a la Matthew) to slaughter all infant males in Bethlehem. Much more than a record of Jesus himself, we would expect an independent record of this event had it occurred.

    Nor is there any known event corresponding to the census in Luke motivating J&M to go to Bethlehem in the first place.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted December 17, 2015 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

      I smell MacGuffins!


  6. Historian
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Scholars of religion who are in fact religious themselves often bend over backwards to try to find archaeological evidence that supports biblical narratives. Such is the case with the Exodus. Mosaic Magazine publishes articles dealing with Jewish issues. It strikes me as conservative in orientation. In any case, it recently published a series of essays dealing with the question of whether the Exodus really happened. Some claim that some sort of Exodus happened. Others discount the supposed evidence as flimsy at best. Of course, even if there was an exodus of Jews out of Egypt, the biblical story’s resemblance to actuality is about the same as the biblical story of Jesus being a deity.

    For those interested in reading these essays, go here.

    • Posted December 17, 2015 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      I am no expert, but I enjoyed I. Finkelstein’s _The Bible Unearthed_, which does conclude: No Exodus.

      • TJR
        Posted December 17, 2015 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

        Does No Exodus also mean No No Woman, No Cry?
        That would be terrible.

        Ah, just checked, it was on a different album. That’s a relief.

  7. Diane G.
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    The bit about the limestone cup is interesting…wonder if they had any grounds other than woo to make the distinction between limestone and pottery?

    • allison
      Posted December 17, 2015 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      Yes, I’d like to know more about that cup…was it actually carved from a block of limestone? How?

      • Philip Elliott
        Posted December 17, 2015 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

        Simple. You start with a block of Limestone and take away everything that isn’t the cup.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted December 17, 2015 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

          Shockingly wasteful of limestone. And I would have thought it would be quite permeable (i.e. porous). Though I could be worng about that.

    • Posted December 17, 2015 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      And beautiful as well. Modern replicas would make great souvenirs. I want one!

  8. Posted December 17, 2015 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    So you’re saying there’s a chance?!

    It’s typical of believers to make the leap from the faintest possibility, or even the inability to wholly rule out a possibility, to acceptance of the idea as fact.

    The mechanism is that, if the finding, like this one, cannot be proven to counter the belief, then it need not be explored any deeper, and later, in the mists of memory, it can be brought to mind, or into a conversation, as another element that makes the unbelievable slightly more solid, slightly more believable.

    We did it all the time. It need not be the most likely outcome. It only needs to hint at a distant maybe. This becomes another brick in the wall of faith.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 17, 2015 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      The mortar holding all the bricks together is the conviction that God Himself is very, very interested in shoring up the personal beliefs of the faithful and converting as many neighbors as possible right now. In this very day and age, rife as it is with scoffers. You — yes you — are important to Him. So preserving and revealing the very house where Jesus grew up is exactly the sort of thing God would do.

      Did it give you a tingle of excitement when you read about it? Then God just nudged that faintest possibility of historical academia into a strong witness of Divine Truth.


      • plingar
        Posted December 17, 2015 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        So why did it take the big G so long to reveal this house? couldn’t he have revealed it sooner?
        BTW I love your replies, nice tingle of wicked amusement!

        • rickflick
          Posted December 17, 2015 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

          It’s odd, too, to think God, being God, should have any trouble convincing anybody of anything. Why doesn’t he just say so and be done with it. Why have a scrap of archaeology here and a shred of dubiously authored text there? How about something really big, like heating the planet and melting the ice caps?

          • Posted December 17, 2015 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

            Because he’s myyyyyssssttteeeeerrrrriiiiooooouuuussss!!


            • rickflick
              Posted December 17, 2015 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

              By George I think you’ve got it.

  9. Tom
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Biblical Archaeology whilst rarely turning up something interesting nearly always fails to be objective when interpreting the relevance of what it finds and tends to leap to conclusions. The Dark opinion is an example. A none religious Archaeologist would never dare to make such a controversial claim on so little evidence.

    • Posted December 17, 2015 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      This sort of thing seems to happen in New Testament history proper too, for likely the same reasons. See my earlier message where the Western Civ book cites *Acts*, for crying out loud. (You’d think this would embarrass the textbook author, but …)

      Richard Carrier, E. Doherty and the earlier German and other (e.g., 19th century) critics may look fringe, but they do point one to “mainstream” scholarship, which as far as I can tell at least is pretty thread-bare.

    • Posted December 17, 2015 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      ” A none religious Archaeologist would never dare to make such a controversial claim on so little evidence.”

      I think a real archaeologist would never make such a claim. I have severe doubts that any Biblical ____ has any significant training in ____ whatsoever.

  10. Posted December 17, 2015 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Poor scholarship, click bait headline, seasonal (so to speak). Oh dear. But note the “weasel word” – “possibly”.

    If I could by fiat introduce new vocabulary into natural language one project would be to create different words for logical, epistemic, nomological, etc. possibility. These are sufficiently confused, even amongst philosophers (still) that the public doesn’t have a chance!

    (About the confusion: many people think that events or states are logically possible or not, whereas the only theories I know of logical possibility attribute logical possibility to *propositions* [or sentences, perhaps] if carefully analyzed.)

  11. Roger
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Th only way we would know for sure would be if there were wine everywhere but a distinct absence of water. And zillions of fish and donkeys everywhere.

  12. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    If there is something I have learned about this ironic business is that ‘biblical historians/archaeologists’ are desperate to confirm every scrap of myth text they wish to take for granted.

    The myth text can’t even agree on the importance of ‘Nazareth’.

    But further, what says the settlement is a town that was called “Nazareth”? Here is what Wikipedia says on the modern city of Nazareth:

    “The form Nazara is also found in the earliest non-scriptural reference to the town, a citation by Sextus Julius Africanus dated about 221 CE[24] (see “Middle Roman to Byzantine Periods” below). The Church Father Origen (c. 185 to 254 AD) knows the forms Nazará and Nazarét.[25] Later, Eusebius in his Onomasticon (translated by St. Jerome) also refers to the settlement as Nazara.[26] The ‘nașirutha’ of the scriptures of the Mandeans refers to ‘priestly craft’ not to Nazareth, which they identified with Qom.[27]

    The first non-Christian reference to Nazareth is an inscription on a marble fragment from a synagogue found in Caesarea Maritima in 1962.[28] This fragment gives the town’s name in Hebrew as “נצרת” (n-ṣ-r-t). The inscription dates to c. AD 300 and chronicles the assignment of priests that took place at some time after the Bar Kokhba revolt, AD 132-35.[29] (See “Middle Roman to Byzantine Periods” below.)” [ ]

    So, more myth text arguments on the importance of ‘Nazareth’ vs Qom, et cetera. But in a seculatr context, is the historical city Nazara the eponymous ‘Nazareth’ and is it the modern city of Nazareth? What would be the connection between a locale found on a “hillside in Nazareth” in the Nahal Zippori “wide valley” and the modern city be? [ ] Is the locale even within a few kilometers from the city?

  13. Steve Pollard
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    One of the more entertaining of the mythicists, Kenneth Humphreys, asserts that Nazareth scarcely existed in the 1st century, and that the gospels mistranslate either ‘Nazarene’ (a sect that was an offshoot of the Essenes) or ‘Nazarite’ (‘he who vows to grow his hair long and serve god’).

    Is he right? Don’t know: I am not an expert. But he does give some sources to back up his assertions.

  14. reginaldselkirk
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    There’s a comedy about Biblical archaeology in theatres now: Don Verdean

    the reviews are not so great.

  15. Posted December 17, 2015 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    religion is all wishful thinking

  16. Posted December 17, 2015 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    I expect National Geographic to devote an entire issue on this archaeological find, replete with dozens of pictures of people kneeling, praying, kissing crosses, etc.

  17. tony in san diego
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    “Yeah, and all the air molecules in this room may, by chance, move to one side of the room.”

    Although, statistically speaking,one of the air molecules in your lungs, may have been in the lungs of Jesus (if he existed)

    • John Frum
      Posted December 18, 2015 at 1:27 am | Permalink

      …and statistically a molecule of Jesus’ poo could be in a communion wafer which would mean people really are eating the body of Christ.

  18. DrBrydon
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Well, if we ignore some vague statements about where he was born, and when he lived, he COULD have grown up in my house.

  19. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    On a related note, there’s an article in The Atlantic about the efforts by the family that owns Hobby Lobby (the company that got SCOTUS to strike down the mandatory birth-control provisions of the ACA) to essentially corner the market on biblical artifacts (and, consequently, biblical scholarship) and to build a massive new “bible museum” in Washington D.C.

  20. Diana MacPherson
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Good grief, there are such occupations as “Archaeologists for Jesus”? Oh how awful for archaeology and how doubly awful that these people will be tramping around Ancient Roman archaeological sites annoying Classical Archaeologists!

    • Colin Campbell
      Posted December 18, 2015 at 2:23 am | Permalink

      One might coyne the term Archaepologists…..

      • Diane G.
        Posted December 18, 2015 at 6:41 am | Permalink

        Very good!

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted December 18, 2015 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

        An apt portmanteau!

  21. Posted December 17, 2015 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    This is about the same level of evidence as the old women in black I saw peering into a small empty room in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, weeping and crying, “See, it’s empty — that prove he rose from the dead!”

    • Posted December 17, 2015 at 9:59 pm | Permalink


      Find a snatch of fur on a bramble in the forest? Boom. Possibly bigfoot’s.

      Find an antler in the meadow? Boom. Possibly Santa’s reindeer’s.


    • John Frum
      Posted December 18, 2015 at 1:29 am | Permalink

      Imagine how much fun you could have by dressing up as Jesus and hiding in that room.

      • Diane G.
        Posted December 18, 2015 at 6:29 am | Permalink

        Made me laugh! 😀

  22. Posted December 17, 2015 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    ” What I do doubt is whether it was Jesus’s home.”

    And good reason to doubt. Thinking this was Jesus’s home is like thinking one must have been someone famous in a past life!

    You are spot on in the conflation of possibility with probability.

    • rickflick
      Posted December 17, 2015 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

      I know, right? Everyone who professes to have a past life always seemed to have been a princess in a small Balkan nation, or a general in a Peloponnesian war. It would be just my luck to be a farm peasant in feudal times. But I don’t suppose I’d have much to talk about.

      • John Frum
        Posted December 18, 2015 at 1:33 am | Permalink

        You could always discuss the merits of watery tarts handing out swords.

        • rickflick
          Posted December 18, 2015 at 10:38 am | Permalink

          Yes I could…which might lead to wielding supreme executive power.

  23. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    ‘Director of ……… Byzantine Studies’.

    Well, there you are then. How much more byzantine could it get?


  24. Michael Reagan
    Posted December 18, 2015 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    A British archaeologist seems to be claiming that this random house is where the mythical Jesus grew up. An American archaeologist is saying it is simply a first century Jewish house. The British archaeologist is screwed trying to claim the house has a relationship to Jesus, an elite person in today’s beliefs. But American archaeologists are interested in the houses of the non-elites. This bias in viewpoints leads to faulty thinking – why this particular house? Surely there are other 1st century houses in the area. The 18th and 19th century archaeologists arrived with a Bible in one hand and spade in the other. Now there are much less biased archaeologists working in the area. It is sad to see that such biases are still affecting the area’s scientific work.

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