How should we translate ‘man’?

My friend Oliver Harrison recently raised an interesting question about the translation of sexed terms:

Beautiful June dawn, so up to church to say Morning Prayer. But wait! What’s this? Ps. 119:9 is translated as “How shall young people cleanse their way to keep themselves according to your word?” Now I’m pretty sure that’s not right. So when I get home I check it and it should read “young man” — not “young people”. The Hebrew word is נַּ֭עַר (pronounced “na-‘ar”; noun; masc. sing.) which Alter translates as “a lad”. The use of inclusive language (e.g. not using “man” for “people”) is entirely good and right, not just on the grounds of equality but also accuracy. However, sometimes certain texts are indeed speaking to or about men (boys, males etc) and not all people or humanity in general. Erasing those instances does a disservice to a sexed/gendered reading and is objectively less true to the actual text. And, no, I’m not playing a victim card here or claiming discrimination; I just want texts to be translated without any overt or explicit agenda, however well-meant and seemingly harmless.

One of the responses in the discussion thread made this point:

Inclusive language in the psalter is generally gibberish because it destroys the Christological reading.

The particular example that highlights this most obviously is the citation of Ps 8.4–5 in Hebrews 2.5–9.

Ps 8.4–6what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honour.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet
what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet
Heb 2.8–9Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyoneIn putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. 

What is the issue of language that the translators are wrestling with here, and why do they come to different conclusions?

The terms in Ps 8 that are being translated are אֱנ֥וֹשׁ enosh and וּבֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם ben-adam. The first is a poetic term for ‘humankind’, and the second uses a synonym ‘adam’ and the word for ‘son of’. Although the term ben can have a sexed sense (meaning ‘male offspring’) it often doesn’t. One of the standard phrases in the Old Testament for referring to the whole of the people of Israel, particular during the desert wanderings, is ‘the congregation of the sons of Israel’. But this clearly refers to the whole community, so that even the ESV translates this as ‘congregation of the children of Israel’ (see eg Numbers 26.2, and so the ESV is actually being inconsistent), whilst the TNIV translates the sense, rather than the grammatical construction, as ‘the whole Israelite community’.

In the context of Ps 8, this is what the phrase means; the psalmist is indeed reflecting on how God sees humanity, and not one particular member of humanity, and certainly not a single male person. The same is true of the NT quotation in Hebrews; the writer follows the Greek OT (the Septuagint, or LXX) in using ἄνθρωπος and υἱὸς ἀνθρώπου. This term, from which we get out word ‘anthropology’, does indeed mean ‘person’ and not ‘male person’, and the ESV is, at one level, offering a poor and unjustifiable translation by rendering it as ‘man’, which in contemporary English is a sexed and not generic term.

How do we make sense, then, of what the author of Hebrews goes on to say? What the writer is doing is drawing on the difference between the sense of the Psalm, which is not sexed, and the grammar of the Psalm, which is! Although the sense of the Psalm is a reference to all humanity, Jesus drew on the grammar of the phrase ‘Son of Man’ as a way of referring to himself, in part drawing on this Psalm, in part on the use of the phrase in Ezekiel, and in part on its use in Dan 7.13.

Thus, Jesus being made ‘a little lower than the angels’ refers to his incarnation, even though the psalmist is not talking about that in Ps 8, and ‘putting all things under his feet’ then refers to the final eschatological exaltation of Jesus at the end of time, which Paul also talks about in 1 Cor 15.27, using this exact same quotation from Ps 8.

The writer of Hebrews is then making the difference between the sense and the grammar of Ps 8 do quite a lot of theological work! Whereas the glory of humanity in the psalm is to exercise the rule over creation as mandated in Gen 1.28, sharing in the kingly rule of God, the glory of Jesus is expressed in his (Phil 2) obedience to God leading to suffering and death—a rather Johannine understanding found in the Fourth Gospel where it is Jesus’ elevation on the cross which is the expression of his glory. And the fact that all things are not yet ‘under his feet’ points to the reality that, whilst Jesus is Lord for those who confess him, and he is exalted and enthroned at the right hand of the Father, the whole world does not yet see this, though one day ‘every knee will bow and every tongue will confess’ (Phil 2.11) his sovereignty when he returns.

This sense-grammar divide thus allows the writer of Hebrews to talk about incarnation, crucifixion, ascension, and eschatology. But because the TNIV continues to follow the sense of Ps 8 rather than its grammatical construction, it changes the meaning of the commentary in Hebrews to be one about humanity rather than about Jesus—which makes little sense at all!

Some would say that Hebrews is revealing a ‘fuller meaning’ of Ps 8, but I don’t think this is the case. All that is happening is the same kind of thing when we make use of the difference between sense and grammar in everyday life. One of my favourite examples is in the joke:

My friend gave me an elephant for my room. I said ‘Thank you.’ He said ‘Don’t mention it’.

This is a complex pun which depends on knowledge of the metaphorical phrase ‘The elephant in the room’ meaning the issue which no-one will mention. The joke takes the grammar of the metaphor, literalises it, and then makes a play on the metaphorical meaning. Something similar happens in cartoons drawing on this phrase, which depict an actual elephant in the actual room in question.

The meaning of Ps 8 has not changed; it is still about the paradox of the humility and glory of humanity. But the incarnation, crucifixion and exaltation of Jesus gives this a new depth. By means of his life, death and exaltation, he gives a new sense of our humility, but also of our glory, and is the one who allows us to be what God truly intended in his creation plan. Jesus fulfils the meaning and destiny of the humanity which is expressed in the psalm; it is not the meaning of the words of psalm which is changed, but the meaning of the humanity that is depicted there.

All this is but one example of the issues in translation, which in turn arise because of the multiple levels at which language works. Language creates ‘meaning effects’ at many levels: the basic level of the sound of an utterance; the semantic range of the terms, read in context; the significance of phrases and units put together; their performative effect; their emotional impact; and the significant in relation to cotexts elsewhere; to name but a few. Moving from one language to another can never do all these things, so translators must choose which they prioritise. Word for word translations focus on the first few; ‘dynamic equivalents’ often go for the middle ones; paraphrases prioritise the later ones. Since intertextuality is usually carried by the actual words in the text, the intertextual connections are usually best effective by word for word translations—but they then lose other things, like the wider contextual impact.

You can find examples of meaning conveyed at each of these levels both in contemporary English and in the biblical texts. For example, the phrase that was popular a few years ago ‘From maintenance to mission’, entirely relies on its actual sound for impact, that is, the alliteration of the two words starting with M. When you think about it for a moment, the phrase actually makes little sense; if you don’t invest in maintaining your community, then you don’t have anything to invite people to in mission. There are examples everywhere in scripture where the impact of a phrase arises from the actual sounds of words (Gilgal galo yigleh ‘Gilgal will surely go into exile’, Amos 5.5; or the alliteration of terms describing the wisdom from above in James 3.17) which are always lost in translation.

Given all this, how might we respond to Oliver Harrison’s original question? What is the right translation of Ps 119.9? That depends on a number of contextual issues:

a. In cultural context, is this addressed only to young men? Quite possibly. For example, the interlocutor in Proverbs is almost always assumed to be male.

b. Does this kind of injunction apply particularly to men, rather than women? Again, quite possibly, which is what I think Oliver is getting at here.

c. But does it apply only to men? This is a bigger question, and has lots of parallels. For example, in the gospels Jesus is teaching things to the Twelve disciples. It is a lively question as to whether the things he teaches apply to them as The Twelve, or to them as paradigms of discipleship. This also touches on why the Twelve are all male. The reason is surely that Jesus is shaping his followers as a (re)new(ed) Israel, and so these Twelve must remind us of the patriarchs. But, given that the ‘congregation of the sons of Israel’ included women, this decision cannot be seen merely as a bias towards men. In fact, if they were not men, then this would not signal a new Israel, and might not then so obviously include women! Again, we have a tension between sense and ‘grammar’.

d. Is Jesus the Son of Man in the sense of being a male human figure, or a human figure who happens to be male? The answer here is ‘both, on different occasions’. For example, as we have seen, the use of the phrase in Ps 8.4, the Hebrew terms enosh and ben adam must surely be taken as ‘humanity’—but Jesus as ‘Son of Man’ makes him this archetypal human. It is a problem with translation—but also with the sexed nature of humanity. Jesus the male human is the archetype for a new humanity, both male and female.

e. The question is often solved by look at these terms, and the equivalent anthropos in Greek—but not always. Sometimes the sexed male term aner is used to mean ‘people’ (in James) unless of course we assume that the audience of moral agents here is assumed to be male.

We cannot solve these issues by systematically carrying over the sexed grammar into English, as the ESV does, since this makes unwarranted claims about the priority of maleness. But the problem is not entirely solved by following the solution of the TNIV, and always prioritising the (non-sexed) sense of the words and phrases. This is a good reason to use more than one translation—and an even better reason to learn to read Greek and Hebrew!

(The image at the top is a detail from Jesus as the Son of Man in Revelation 14, from a graphic novel version of Revelation.)

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52 thoughts on “How should we translate ‘man’?”

  1. I guess the issue as well is one of how we should read the bible. If Jesus and the author of Hebrews are correct, then paying attention to grammatical oddities and riffing on them in a kind of ‘midrashic’ fashion is part of what it means to read the text faithfully. Therefore we should have biblical translations which enable people to do that, even if they end up a bit on the wooden and clunky side. However, there is also a place for more meaning-oriented translations in terms of general reading. It all depends on the purpose for which you are reading.

    Many more questions abound such as the setting intended by a text, the difference between a text intended to be read privately vs spoken aloud and so on. Translators have to wrestle with all these kinds of issues.

    • Agreed Chris. Not an easy task to translate it seems.. As someone who has no Greek or Hebrew I am grateful for access to more literal translations to help me but appreciate the more dynamic for most ordinary reading.

    • I understand your point Penelope. It is not always easy to see the link. Hebs 1 is a good example. This is where we are often grateful to scholarship. Beale. And Carson’s ‘The NT’s Use of the OT’ is a helpful book.

      Often the OT seems to point to something beyond itself.

      In the Psalms for instance the idealised Davidic king, the Son, was regarded as messianic. The innocent sufferer finds its full realisation in Christ. Ideal descriptions of Jerusalem are eschatological. Sometimes these are further ‘filled out’ with what has been revealed about Christ in incarnation.

      Sometimes the status of Christ as Yahweh is assumed by the NT authors to be clear and OT verses are used not to prove he is Yahweh but to reveal some aspect of his character as Yahweh.

      I don’t find it easy but I do see a vast number of ideas, imagery and types that come to completion in Christ. It is part of what gives assurance of who Christ is. I know you know all this but it helps to articulate it a little.

  2. Hi Ian

    This post raises interesting questions. In particular, I found it helpful in flagging up the difficulties of deciding when a male reference may or may not be generic. As a general rule I think it is best to keep as near to source documents as possible though I recognise translation must give the sense and be readable.

    You’ll understand i parted company on the last paragraph. You speak of ‘unwarranted claims about the priority of maleness’. I’m sure that is sometimes the case (in generic texts) but at other times the male is to the fore. Why is the generic expressed in male language? Why is the son given instruction by the father in Proverbs? Often the context means it is a son and not a daughter.

    But these issues aside this is a helpful post. Thank you.

  3. There are many examples of OT expressions that are used in the NT, including by Jesus, to refer to Him, but this doesn’t always look as if they’re what the original authors meant. (Hebrews chapter 1 in particular!) I don’t suppose you’re saying that this is always a case of sense versus grammar?

    • Sorry Ian for numerous comments.

      I’m reflecting on Penelope’s comment on Hebs 1. One example is

      And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
      “Let all God’s angels worship him.”

      The OT reference is the Septuagint version of this text

      (ESV) 43 “Rejoice with him, O heavens;
      bow down to him, all gods, [let all the angels of God worship him]
      for he avenges the blood of his children
      and takes vengeance on his adversaries.
      He repays those who hate him
      and cleanses his people’s land.”

      It is a bit uncertain as to whether this reference in Hebrews refers to Christ’s first Coming or Second Coming. The reference to taking vengeance on adversaries etc in the slightly larger context of the quote from Deuteronomy with its acts of vengeance suggests it is Christ’s Second Coming in judgement that is primarily in view. However, it could refer to the cross where Messiah’s enemies are overthrown and the people cleansed.

      The title ‘firstborn’ belongs to Christ as the Davidic King, Messiah (Ps 89:27). However, often lying in the background is an assumption of divinity. The Deuteronomy passage is a reference to God as the divine warrior. Yet, as increasingly revealed, the conquests of Yahweh are fought by Messiah; both are one.

      I’m not sure I am interpreting this correctly. Any help or insight will be appreciated. However, I think the NT use of the OT is illustrated.

    • That’s an important question. I don’t think there is any sense in which those quoting are changing the meaning of the OT texts.

      But they are doing two things:

      a. Reading in the light of what God has done in Jesus, which changes everything.
      b. Reading the texts theologically, which is something we all do.

  4. All the TNIV translation does is move the burden of the prophetic meaning from a male person (Christ) to the people of God (the bride). Not ideal but okay with me. It is impossible to wipe out the male/female dynamic, best seen in Ps. 45.

  5. There sure are a lot of issues when you translate these texts. I rendered 119:9 as:
    But how will a youth clear his path,
    to keep it according to your word?
    It does seem that the lad is in view here.
    There are two words for lad and lass, nyr is the masculine, and nyrh the feminine – same root though – nun ayin resh. The pronoun in this case is singular and male, so it is hard to translate as ‘his or her’ or maybe ‘its’ – though sometimes I do go neuter especially when referring to the singular wicked in Psalms 7. Here I think the singular is important.
    The translated line should begin with a B for the acrostic. That puts a crimp on your glosses – playing a children’s game with the poetry.
    I agree with Steve about the impossibility of wiping out the male/female dynamic.
    If one has to translate for a particular theology, one cannot be honest with the text. Theology should come after translation.

  6. I couldn’t agree more with the above observations summarised by Bob as “the impossibility of wiping out the the male/female dynamic.” For example, the TNIV translation of Ps 8:4 “mere mortals” is an instance of a contemporary mentality – but I suspect a mentality with a specific purpose. So what is the reason for introducting a term “mortals” ; a word which to me is redolent of a *past* era or perhaps for others creating impressions of a humanoid species from Star Wars? Is it to make the teaching more meaningful? Or is it with the express intent of minimising the impact of male/female complimentarity; perhaps even going so far as to eliminate the concept altogether?

    • The reason for using ‘mortals’ is that, as I explain above, the terms ‘enash’ and ‘ben adam’ are grammatically sexed terms, but actually do not have a sexed sense, referring as they do to both women and men. ‘Man’ does not.

      So there is a tension here, and no one translation can do justice to both meanings.

  7. Psalms 8 is a study in structure. The word fingers occurs twice in the psalms, once here and once in Psalms 144. Psalms 8 and 144 are a branch of a chiasm joining the 7 psalms that precede acrostics. Acrostics are a marker of celebration of the psalm that immediately precede them. 8-144 (the two fingers in the Psalter), 36-110 (the two oracles in the Psalter). The acrostics 9-10 celebrate Psalms 8, 25 celebrates 24, 34 celebrates 33 (the only psalm in book I (3-41) without inscription, 37 celebrates 36, 111-112 celebrates 110, 119 celebrates 118, 145 celebrates 144.

    As to how first to gloss and then to translate the human component in 8:5,
    What is a mortal (mh-anow)? for you remember it.
    And a child of humanity (ubn-adm)? for you visit it,
    note that it is a reversal of 144:3
    Yahweh, what is this humanity (adm) מָה־אָ֭דָם that you know it,
    a mortal child (bn-anow) בֶּן־אֱ֝נ֗וֹשׁ that you devised it?

    You can see that I went with ‘it’ for pronouns here. The mimicking of this phrase also occurs in Job 7:17-21.

    What is a mortal (anow) that you make him great,
    and that you impose on him your heart?

    I have sinned. How will I work for you, observer of the human (adm)?
    Why have you set me as your butt,
    so that I am a liability to myself?

    I have been very careful in my glossing – as much as possible I do not allow two separate Hebrew roots to map to the same English root (with about 2% exceptions for very common words). If you’re asking, it was a 10 year project with considerable help from prediction and control algorithms. There’s no-one marketing my work so it’s an obscure and hidden translation but there is a full online concordance so that my decisions – apt or not – are transparent. Look for ‘human’ here if you are interested:

  8. I probably object to patronising translators who assume that those reading Scripture are a bunch of thickos (which seems to be the underlying assumption of the TNIV translators).

    I think that pretty much everybody knows how Hebrew, Greek and, until recently English, use masculine pronouns both to denote male, also as the generic pronoun for situations where gender isn’t determined.

    Absolutely everybody reading Scripture is equipped with this knowledge and it’s basically up to the reader to decide how it should be taken – a bit arrogant of the translators to make these decisions for the reader.

    • Ah, yes. Everyone knows, as in the comment “in this, wherever appropriate, the male embraces the female.”

      Please note that the discussion here is not about pronouns but nouns. With a pronoun, you find the noun to which it refers for the sense. Do you really not think there is an issue with translating two different nouns in Greek, one of which can apply equally to male and female and the other which applies specifically to the male, by the same word in English? The distinction in meaning is lost in this way.

      • Well said – yet even with very careful glossing, for ‘man’ I did not succeed. I render mt always as man/men – it occurs 20 times in the Masoretic text and is confined to the male – in only a few books, Deut, Job, full list here And I used it many times for aiw – full list here (457 times). aiw is widely used – 2200 times – and is often inclusive of both genders. full list here

        KJV uses man over 2500 times and men another 1500+ times. Can you guess how many different Hebrew roots are represented? Obviously more than the 2 mentioned above. I would guess 6 at least – certainly aiw, mt, gbr, adm, anow, zcr and I am sure there are more. Some of these uses may be qualified – e.g. zcr is sometimes given as ‘man child’.

        It is a slow process to deal with these – and of course, the usage changes over time for the native ancient Hebrew – so much is moot. Translation is a hard problem.

      • David Wilson – As far as I can see, `biblical English’ is, and always has been, different from `normal English’ – and yet ordinary people seem to have understood what biblical English meant.

        With the verse quoted by Ian Paul in his article:

        what is man that you are mindful of him,
        and the son of man that you care for him?

        I can’t imagine that in the first of these verses anyone ever thought that the `him’ referred exclusively to a single person, or that `what is man’ referred to either a single man or exclusively to the male element of `mankind’.

        I don’t believe that there was ever any lack of understanding on this point and that the TNIV authors were required to add clarity where clarity was previously lacking.

        The next line

        and the son of man that you care for him?

        clearly something very serious has been taken away in the TNIV translation; the translators really don’t imagine that there could be the tiniest reference to Jesus Christ here?

        I always took this to be a Messianic psalm; while the first of these verses `man’ referred to mankind, the `son of man’ is more specific and by the end of the passage that Ian Paul quotes we have very particular reference to the Messiah. But the TNIV somehow destroys that and it’s difficult to make sense of it in this way with their translation.

        The conventional `biblical English’, used for hundreds of years, which was never the same as normal everyday English (e.g. take the KJV translation – people didn’t speak like that to each other – not even in the time of King James) succeeds in preserving nuances and possibilities (it can be taken in the TNIV if one wants to) while the TNIV reduces it to exactly one line.

        Of course, the translators could be correct that this is not a Messianic psalm, meaning that Christians have got it incredibly wrong for hundreds of years …..

        • ….. so it doesn’t really matter if a term in modern contemporary English is `sexed’ or not – the issue is how the term is taken in `biblical English’, which always has been quite different from modern contemporary English.

          Re-reading Ian Paul’s piece, I think this is actually the key problem – the translators somehow feel they have to translate it into `modern contemporary English’ (when people actually know how to handle `biblical English’ – and have done for centuries).

        • … Ian Paul does allude to the fact that even in New Testament times, biblical Greek wasn’t ordinary everyday Greek – you find the meanings of Greek words in the NT by seeing how they were used in the Septuagint (and not by seeing how they were used in every day conversation).

          So I do think the translators are onto a loser if they think they can translate Scriptures into contemporary English (since Scriptures weren’t really written in contemporary language in the first place).

        • ‘I can’t imagine that in the first of these verses anyone ever thought that the `him’ referred exclusively to a single person, or that `what is man’ referred to either a single man or exclusively to the male element of `mankind’.’

          Er, that appears to be precisely what some people commenting here think!

          • seems to be based on licensed premises.

            I fear that is the result of over-enthusiastic software correction with a sense of humour, but I really hope it isn’t.

  9. So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them. (ESV)
    So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them. (NIV)

    The ESV is right and the NIV is wrong. From the NIV mistake flows all the errors about sexuality and ordination of women

    Phil Almond

    • Sorry, you are completely mistaken here.

      ‘adam’ when used as a general noun does *not* refer to (male) ‘man’, but to humanity. It is translated by the Greek LXX as anthropos, which similarly in contemporary English must be translated ‘humanity’.

      To render either by a sexed term is, well, sexism.

      • What about
        “For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.” (ESV)

        Phil Almond

        • Surely it’s a different case entirely.

          For starters, 1 Corinthians 11:7 isn’t a direct Old Testament quotation, so we’re not dealing with a second-level translation issue from the Hebrew as with Genesis, so we can stay firmly in the Greek.

          Second to that, the problematic parts of this verse are not the meanings of the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ per se, but the meaning of the word ‘covering’. It is this that seems the topic of most dispute among commentators.

          And thirdly, we have the fact that whatever we think Paul is saying here theologically depends on what we think he’s saying in Verses 2-6. So we can’t treat the verse in isolation.


  10. I don’t know Hebrew but looking at a literal translation of Genesis 1-3 on the internet it seems to me that the same Hebrew word is used from 1:27 (for man (ESV)/mankind (NIV)) right through to Genesis 3 where the person referred to is definitely a male human being.

    Phil Almond

    • Hi Philip

      As you know I am on your side of the patriarchy issue but I think man is being used in a generic sense. I think both male and female bear the divine image. I think Paul is pointing to this in new creation.

      Be renewed in the spirit of your minds. Put off the old self and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness

      This seems to be an echo of Gen 1 and clearly applies to all believers. 1 Cor 11 does point to hierarchy of image bearing nevertheless,

      • ‘1 Cor 11 does point to hierarchy of image bearing nevertheless’. No it doesn’t, since ‘head’ is not there a metaphor for ‘being in authority over’, and Paul *never* talks either about men ruling women (as Aristotle did) nor women ‘obeying’ men.

        If it was about hierarchy, then there is ontological hierarchy in the Trinity, which has consistently been rejected as heresy since the Fathers.

        • Paul uses the same word ‘being subject’, ‘is subject’ for both the Christ-church and the husband –wife relationships. I point out in my essay that
          ‘In the New Testament there are 34 instances (various tenses etc.) of the verb ‘hupotasso’ which is the word translated ‘is subject’ in Ephesians 5:24. One is Ephesians 5:21, of which more later. 4 are about wives being subject to their husbands (the correct understanding of which is at the heart of the disagreement), 1 is about women learning ‘in all subjection’ and the context of the other 28 makes clear that ‘being subject’ involves the notion of authority and/or obeying or disobeying that authority’.
          ‘For so then indeed the holy women hoping in God adorned themselves, submitting (same word as in Ephesians) themselves to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord….’ (1 Peter 3:5-6)
          ‘Obey’ and ‘be subject to’ are not so far apart in conveying the idea of authority.
          Phil Almond

        • In 1 Corinthians 11 the God-Christ kephale is explained by the Son’s submission to the Father for the purposes of his redemptive mission: ‘For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me’. It does not refer to the ontological relationship.
          Phil Almond

        • This is old ground Ian. Paul speaks of women submitting to their husbands and in the church learning with all quietness and submission. Its semantics to say he doesn’t speak of obeying, Also Peter quite clearly speaks of Sarah obeying Abraham and uses this as an encouragement to wives to submit to their husbands

          In Eph 5 the woman is to submit to her husband because he is her head. Whether source or leader the point is the same though I have no doubt head means ‘authority over’

          In 1 Cor 11 it is almost certainly ‘leader’ or ‘authority’ that makes best sense. Paul is not getting concerned about head coverings simply because one is the source of the other. It is what source implies that matters. Source implies authority. The man is not of the woman but the woman of the man. As a result she is ‘the glory of the man’ and not vice versa.

          I’m not sure it makes sense to say the source of the woman is the man (true) the source of the man is Christ (?) and the source of Christ is God (?). Substitute source with chief/leader and all makes clear sense.

          It does not follow that the head of Christ is God involves ontological subordination in the trinity. It need not even involve functional subordination (though I think Father/Son implies this). However it is not Father/Son in 1 Cor 11 it is God/Messiah. Messiah is forever subject to God .

          “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.

          I suspect your egalitarian complementarity will be much more removed from the church Fathers and those who have subsequently followed than the position Philip and I support.

          Re Eternal functional subordination it seems to have a good pedigree. Wayne Grudem lists the following:

          Here are the thirteen additional quotations, followed by the original five:
          1. J. I. Packer, Knowing God (1973). (Packer is probably the best-known living evangelical theologian, and is sometimes called “the gate-keeper of evangelicalism.”)
          “Part of the revealed mystery of the Godhead is that the three persons stand in a fixed relation to each other….It is the nature of the second person of the Trinity to acknowledge the authority and submit to the good pleasure of the first. That is why He declares Himself to be the Son, and the first person to be His Father. Though co-equal with the Father in eternity, power, and glory, it is natural to Him to play the Son’s part, and find all His joy in doing His Father’s will, just as it is natural to the first person of the Trinity to plan and initiate the works of the Godhead and natural to the third person to proceed from the Father and the Son to do their joint bidding. Thus the obedience of the God-man to the Father while He was on earth was not a new relationship occasioned by the incarnation, but the continuation in time of the eternal relationship between the Son and the Father in heaven.” Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 54-55.

          2. Carl F. H. Henry (1982). (Henry taught at numerous evangelical seminaries and was often referred to as “the dean of evangelical theologians” in the last half of the 20th century.)
          “The creeds speak of the subordination, distinction and union of the three persons without implying an inferiority of any; since all three persons have a common divine essence they affirm the Son’s subordination to the Father, and the Spirit’s subordination to the Father and the Son. This subordination pertains to mode of subsistence and to mode of operations” (God, Revelation and Authority (Waco, Texas: Word, 1982), vol. 5, p. 205.)
          “Christians must . . . avoid claiming supernatural authority for one or another interpretation that seems to resolve the problem of persons and essence in the Trinity” (p. 210).

          3. Jonathan Edwards (1740). (Edwards (1703-1758) is commonly recognized as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, theologian in the history of America.)
          “1. That there is a subordination of the persons of the Trinity, in their actings with respect to the creature; that one acts from another, and under another, and with a dependence on another, in their actings, and particularly in what they act in the affair of man’s redemption. So that the Father in that affair acts as Head of the Trinity, and Son under him, and the Holy Spirit under them both.
          2. ‘Tis very manifest that the persons of the Trinity are not inferior one to another in glory and excellency of nature…
          4. Though a subordination of the persons of the Trinity in their actings be not from any proper natural subjection one to another, and so must be conceived of as in some respect established by mutual free agreement…yet this agreement establishing this economy is not to be looked upon as merely arbitrary…But there is a natural decency or fitness in that order and economy that is established. ‘Tis fit that the order of the acting of the persons of the Trinity should be agreeable to the order of their subsisting: that as the Father is first in the order of subsisting, so he should be first in the order of acting…therefore the persons of the Trinity all consent to this order, and establish it by agreement, as they all naturally delight in what is in itself fit, suitable and beautiful. Therefore,
          5. This order [or] economy of the persons of the Trinity with respect to their actions ad extra2 is to be conceived of as prior to the covenant of redemption…
          6. That the economy of the persons of the Trinity, establishing that order of their acting that is agreeable to the order of their subsisting, is entirely diverse from the covenant of redemption, and prior to it, not only appears from the nature of things, but appears evidently from the Scripture…”
          1062. “Economy of the Trinity and Covenant of Redemption,” from Jonathan Edwards [1740], The “Miscellanies,” 833-1152 (WJE Online Vol. 20), Ed. Amy Plantinga Pauw.

          4. Geerhardus Vos (1896). (Vos was professor of biblical theology at Princeton from 1892-1932, and his Biblical Theology was required reading in my classes at Westminster Seminary.)
          “Although these three persons possess one and the same divine substance, Scripture nevertheless teaches that, concerning their personal existence, the Father is the first, the Son the second, and the Holy Spirit the third . . . . There is, therefore, subordination as to personal manner of existence and manner of working, but no subordination regarding possession of the one divine substance.” Reformed Dogmatics, translated and edited by Richard B Gaffin, Jr. (Bellingham, Washington: Lexham Press, 2012-2014, from hand-written lectures in 1896), vol. 1, p. 43.

          5. Robert L. Reymond (1998). (Former professor of theology at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis Missouri.)
          “We know also that his Sonship implies an order of relational (not essential) subordination to the Father which is doubtless what dictated the divisions of labor in the eternal Covenant of Redemption in that it is unthinkable that the Son would have sent the Father to do his will.” A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 336.

          6. Robert Letham (2004). (Letham is professor of theology at Union School of Theology, Oxford, UK (formerly Wales Evangelical School of Theology) and adjunct professor at Westminster Theological Seminary.)
          “The Son’s submission to the Father is compatible with his full and unabbreviated deity. Therefore, we may rightly say that the Son submits in eternity to the Father, without in any way breaking his indissoluble oneness with the Father or the Holy Spirit, and without in any way jeopardizing his equality. Being God, he serves the Father. Being God, the Father loves the Son and shares his glory with him (John 17:1-4, 22-24). The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 402.

          7. Bruce Ware (2005). (Ware is professor of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. Though he is a participant in the current discussion, I did not quote him in my earlier brief list, so I include him here.)
          “…the Son is the eternal Son of the eternal Father, and hence, the Son stands in a relationship of eternal submission under the authority of his Father” Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance (Crossway 2005), p. 71.

          8. Norman Geisler (2003). (Geisler is a well-known professor of theology and apologetics who has taught at several evangelical seminaries and now teaches at Southern Evangelical Seminary.)
          “One final word about the nature and duration of this functional subordination in the Godhead. It is not just temporal and economical; it is essential and eternal. For example, the Son is an eternal Son (see Prov. 30:4; Heb. 1:3). He did not become God’s Son; He always was related to God the Father as a Son and always will be. His submission to the Father was not just for time but will be for all eternity.” Systematic Theology vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2003), 291.

          9. Charles Ryrie (1986). (Ryrie was for many years professor of theology at Dallas Seminary.)
          “The phrase ‘eternal generation’ is simply an attempt to describe the Father-Son relationship in the Trinity and, by using the word ‘eternal,’ protect it from any idea of inequality or temporality…Priority without inferiority as seen in the Trinity is the basis for proper relationships between men and women (1 Cor. 11:3).” Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1986), 54, 59.

          10-11. Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest (1987). (Lewis and Demarest taught theology for many years at Denver Seminary.)
          “Alongside the essential equality of persons there exists an economic ordering or functional subordination. Paul implies that, within the administration of the Godhead, the Father has the primacy over the Son…and over the Spirit…And the Son has priority over the Spirit….the ordering relation is eternal and not limited to Christ’s state of humiliation.” Integrative Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), vol. 2, pp. 266-267.

          12. Malcolm B. Yarnell III (2016). (Yarnell is professor of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas.)
          “John [in Revelation] has splendidly portrayed Christological monotheism in its eternal and historical dimensions…He has brought together the titles, the functioning, and the worship that indicate Jesus’s equality with, yet subordination to, the Father in the one place where we can view them simultaneously, the eternal throne of God…
          “There is an eternal subordination in John’s portrayal of the three. God receives upon his throne the victorious Lamb through whom he sent to be a sacrifice. And the Spirit is sent from the throne into all of creation through the Lamb in order to reveal God and the Lamb. There is no hint here that the subordination of the Lamb and the Spirit is merely historical or merely functional. This is an eternal setting….There is eternal equality in John’s portrayal of the three, too.” God the Trinity: Biblical Portraits (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 211, 217.

          13. Mike Ovey (2016). (Ovey teaches theology and serves as principal at Oak Hill Theological College in London. Although I have only quoted published books for the first twelve authors listed here, I am adding a quotation from Mike Ovey’s blog post on June 10, because his new book Your Will Be Done: Exploring Eternal Subordination, Divine Monarchy and Divine Humility has not yet reached me.)
          After quoting Athanasius and Hillary of Poitiers in support, Ovey writes:
          “I have to conclude against Liam that:
          1. There is historical precedent for asserting the eternal subordination of the Son.
          2. The texts of scripture require us to recognise at the level of the persons distinguishable wills of Father and Son.
          3. The Son tells us in scripture that he reveals his eternal love for his Father by his obedience on earth, and this love at the level of persons includes on the Son’s part eternal obedience.
          4. The eternal subordination of the Son does not divide the will of God at the level of nature, because the issue here is one of relations between the persons.
          5. The eternal subordination of the Son does not entail Arianism, because the Son’s obedience arises from his relation as son and not because he is a creature.” (Cited from

          Finally, for the sake of completeness, here are the evangelical theologians that I cited in my earlier article, plus the statements on the Nicene doctrine from Philip Schaff and Geoffrey Bromley:

          14. John Frame (2002). (Professor of theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary-Orlando):
          “There is no subordination within the divine nature that is shared among the persons: the three are equally God. However, there is a subordination of role among the persons, which constitutes part of the distinctiveness of each. But how can one person be subordinate to another in his eternal role while being equal to the other in his divine nature? Or, to put it differently, how can subordination of role b e compatible with divinity? Does not the very idea of divinity exclude this sort of subordination? The biblical answer, I think, is no.” (The Doctrine of God (2002), 720; see also his Systematic Theology (2013), 500-502).

          15. Louis Berkhof (1938). (Professor at Calvin Seminary 1906-1944; his Systematic Theology was perhaps the most widely-used text for Reformed theology through much of the 20th century):
          “The only subordination of which we can speak, is a subordination in respect to order and relationship….Generation and procession take place within the Divine Being, and imply a certain subordination as to the manner of personal subsistence, but not subordination as far as the possession of the divine essence is concerned. This ontological Trinity and its inherent order is the metaphysical basis of the economical Trinity.” (Systematic Theology, 88-89).

          16. A. H. Strong (1907). (President of Rochester Theological Seminary; his Systematic Theology was for many decades perhaps the most widely-used text for evangelical Baptists):
          “…Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while equal in essence and dignity, stand to each other in an order of personality, office, and operation…The subordination of the person of the Son to the person of the Father to be officially first, the Son second, and the Spirit third, is perfectly consistent with equality. Priority is not necessarily superiority. The possibility of an order, which yet involves no inequality, may be illustrated by the relation between man and woman. In office man is first and woman is second, but woman’s soul is worth as much as man’s; see 1 Cor 11:3.” (Systematic Theology, 342).

          17. Charles Hodge (1871-1873). (the great Princeton theologian whose Systematic Theology, 100 years after its publication, was still the required text for at least one of my theology classes as a student at Westminster Seminary):
          “The Nicene doctrine includes…the principle of the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son. But this subordination does not imply inferiority….The subordination intended is only that which concerns the mode of subsistence and operation ….The creeds are nothing more than a well-ordered arrangement of the facts of Scripture which concern the doctrine of the Trinity. They assert the distinct personality of the Father, Son, and Spirit…and their consequent perfect equality; and the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son, as to the mode of subsistence and operation. These are scriptural facts, to which the creeds in question add nothing; and it is in this sense they have been accepted by the Church universal.” (Systematic Theology, 460-462).

          [Additional statement on 1 Cor. 15:28:] “We know that the verbally inconsistent propositions, the Son is subject to the Father, and, the Son is equal with the Father, are both true. In one sense he is subject, in another sense he is equal. The son of a king may be the equal of his father in every attribute of his nature, though officially inferior. So the eternal Son of God may be coequal with the Father, though officially subordinate. What difficulty is there in this? What shade does it cast over the full Godhead of our adorable Redeemer? . . . . The subjection itself is official and therefore perfectly consistent with equality of nature” (Hodge, 1 and 2 Corinthians (Wilmington, Del.: Sovereign Grace, 1972 reprint of 1857 edition), 185- 186.

          18. John Calvin (1559):
          Regarding Calvin, church historian Richard A. Muller, in his massive Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics writes that “Calvin certainly allowed some subordination in the order of the persons . . . But he adamantly denied any subordination of divinity or essence” (Vol. 4, p. 80).
          Here are Calvin’s own words:
          “It is not fitting to suppress the distinction that we observe to be expressed in Scripture. It is this: to the Father is attributed the beginning of activity, and the fountain and wellspring of all things; to the Son, wisdom, counsel, and the ordered disposition of all things; but to the Spirit is assigned the power and efficacy of that activity….The observance of an order is not meaningless or superfluous, when the Father is thought of first, then from him the Son, and finally from both the Spirit.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1:13.18, ed. John T. McNeill, 2 vols., trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1:142-43.)
          [Commentary on John 6:38, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me”:] “Faith is a work of God, by which he shows that we are his people, and appoints his Son to be the protector of our salvation. Now the Son has no other design than to fulfill the commands of his Father.” (John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, translated by William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 252.

          Interpretations of the Nicene Fathers (4th century AD):
          Historian Philip Schaff (1819-1893), author of the eight-volume History of the Christian Church (1910), editor of the standard reference work Creeds of Christendom (3 vols., 1931), and also editor of the 23-volume series Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. wrote this about the Nicene fathers:
          “The Nicene fathers still teach, like their predecessors, a certain subordinationism, which seems to conflict with the doctrine of consubstantiality. But we must distinguish between a subordinationism of essence (ousia) and a subordinationism of hypostasis, of order and dignity. The former was denied, the latter affirmed.” (History of the Christian Church, 3:680).
          Philip Schaff is not alone in his assessment of historic Christian orthodoxy and the Nicene Creed. Historian Geoffrey W. Bromiley, author of the textbook Historical Theology (1978), editor of the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, translator of Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, and translator of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, wrote:
          “Eternal generation….is the phrase used to denote the inter-Trinitarian relationship between the Father and the Son as is taught by the Bible. “Generation” makes it plain that there is a divine sonship prior to the incarnation (cf. John 1:18; 1 John 4:9), that there is thus a distinction of persons within the one Godhead (John 5:26), and that between these persons there is a superiority and subordination of order (cf. John 5:19; 8:28). “Eternal” reinforces the fact that the generation is not merely economic (i.e. for the purpose of human salvation as in the incarnation, cf. Luke 1:35), but essential, and that as such it cannot be construed in the categories of natural or human generation. Thus it does not imply a time when the Son was not, as Arianism argued ….Nor does his subordination imply inferiority….the phrase….corresponds to what God has shown us of himself in his own eternal being….It finds creedal expression in the phrases ‘begotten of his Father before all worlds'” (Nicene) and “begotten before the worlds” (Athanasian). Geoffrey W. Bromiley, “Eternal Generation,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 368).
          In addition, Harold O. J. Brown (former professor of theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), in his massive study of the history of Christian heresy and orthodoxy, concluded this about the language of “eternally begotten of the Father” in the Nicene Creed:
          “Nicaea clearly affirmed that the distinction between the Father and the Son is not ontological or substantial, inasmuch as both are God. It did not clearly specify wherein that distinctiveness does lie. Inasmuch as it is not ontological, it must be relational, as the language of the Bible continues to assert even when we have stripped “begetting” of its ontological implications. At this point, in order to distinguish the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit from one another, the language was allowed to carry its economic implications; that is to say, the Persons of the Trinity were seen to differ in the relationship of commissioner and commissioned, the one sending and the one sent (John 3:16, 14:16). Here, finally, the distinction was allowed to rest; the Son, under (sub) the orders of the Father is clearly subordinate in the relationship, although not by nature; the same holds true for the Holy Spirit.” (Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies: the Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1984), 133.

          “There is no theologian in the Eastern or the Western Church before the outbreak of the Arian Controversy, who does not in some sense regard the Son as subordinate to the Father.” (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, R. P. C. Hanson)

          According to Ovey both Athanasius and Hilary use AFS in defence of Nicene Christianity.

          • John, I’m not sure that your long list of quotes from Grudem actually helps your ‘case’. The last one from R.P.C. Hanson is particularly interesting. Is he saying that the Arian ‘teaching’ was orthodox?

          • John
            I incline to the view that the Son is subordinate to the Father in modes of operation but not in modes of subsistence. Also, as Warfield remarks (The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity, page 166)

            “But we are bound to bear in mind that these relations of subordination in modes of operation may just as well be due to a convention, an agreement, between the Persons of the Trinity – a ‘Covenant’ as it is technically called – by virtue of which a distinct function in the work of redemption is voluntarily assumed by each”

            Phil Almond

    • Phil, I think you have illustrated the problems with relying on a ‘literal’ (by which you mean word for word, not literal) translation. If a rose rose in my garden, should both words be translated in the same way?

  11. I wonder if at least some of the foregoing discussion has been an attempt to avoid any encounter with an issue which is an essential component in understanding contemporary biblical understanding and application . By the way, I am conversant with the generic nature of “man” and its cognates . But equally, I am also aware that the juxtaposition of two modern versions of Psalm 8:4 involves much more that a debate on the nature of this term (man).To date there has been some attempt to address the issue of the respective interpretations; but in my estimation – not enough!
    I confess I am not familiar with the TNIV. However its translation of Psalm 8:4 leaves me cold. Why? Not only because of antiquated – sounding * mortals*, but the simple fact that in order to make it palatable, we now translate what was formerly in the singular into what is now the *plural*! Are we therefore comparing here like with like? Or are we ignoring the essence of two approaches emanating from different perspectives?
    And this is far from an isolated example. For example ———
    John 11:25 : ” Jesus said to her, I am the resurrection and the life” —- but what now follows? In several modern versions, the original “he” becomes “they”! Why? Is it merely to create a deeper understanding of the text or is it to dovetail Scripture into a more “egaliterian” mould, making it more palatible therefore to a contemporary audience?
    Contextually, the employment of “he” fits in with the scene of two bereaved sisters mourning the death of their beloved brother. It is also an occasion when Jesus wept.
    Ah! you might argue, making it plural makes it more suitable for more corporate occasions – especially funerals; particularly if the deceased is a woman. Yes, but at what price? Is there not a danger that a theological generalisation , designed to reduce or even eradicate human distinctions actually ends up promoting a dehumanising, demoralising denouement?
    But who cares! What if there is a grammatical inconsistency? It’s eliminating the *differences* that’s really important. So step one: if necessary, the chairman becomes the chairwoman. But that’s too divisive. So step two: the chairman/woman becomes the chairperson. But why include personhood? So step three: the chairperson becomes * the chair*. A little “parable” Yes it’s trite , but I firmly believe that behind the debates on what some would see as secondary or even trivial there exists a growing assimilation to forms of thinking which, though ostensibly geared towards biblical application are slowly absorbing the mindset of the age.

    • An honest question, Colin: should we *never* absorb the mindset of the age?

      When society tightened up on slavery, was that change a bad mindset to absorb?

      When society started making stronger assertions about women’s lives and status, was that a bad mindset to absorb?

      In my writing last week, in a narrative, I referred to a Chairman, and then I stopped myself and realised the Chairman might be a woman. My immediate use of Chairman was habitual, because I grew up in an age when such people were nearly always male. So I am personally comfortable with ‘Chair’. If some people aren’t, they aren’t.

      Mindsets change, and sometimes for the better. Sometimes the Church needs to learn from the world. We, in the Church, do not have a monopoly on knowledge, love or social justice.

      I think it’s good that our society and our Church is less patriarchal than they were in 1800. The mindset of society has contributed to that improvement. So at the very least, I don’t think it’s all good and bad (I was going to type ‘black and white’ but thought I’d avoid that debate).

      • One quick comment Susannah: it was the powerful mindset and action of prominent Christians such as William Wilberforce which began the transformation of attitudes in England towards slavery and the conditions
        endured by slaves.

      • When society tightened up on slavery, was that change a bad mindset to absorb?

        Um it was the church that was against slavery and then society absorbed that change.

        Your argument that the church should absorb society’s values would have the church staying pro-slavery because that was the view of society.

        Do you really think the church should have been pro-slavery?

        • A perfect argument to show the bible is a post set in tidal waters. Bad translations like the TNIV seek to cut it off and have it float with the prevailing current.

    • Colin
      Just got to say 5hanks for your comment. Left me thinking; the Bible sets the pace, it should never follow. Reminds me of a Matt joke : “I’m their leader, wherever they go I follow”
      The TNIV seems to be a well adjusted, follower of fashion.

    • Colin – in some issues the `mindset of the age’ is something that is very good. The main problem (of course), as you rightly point to, is that basic things in Scripture are being mucked about with in a very bad way.

      On the passage from John that you referred to, the use of a singular speaks to the heart of a person much more than the plural does here. Until very recently it was understood that, when the sex of the individual was not defined, `he’ was the correct generic pronoun to use if one wanted a singular pronoun, in the situation where the statement was directed at each individual (where the individual could be male or female).

      This is the main problem of moving the `he’ to a `they’ in John; the passage now looks more `collective’ rather than Jesus speaking to the heart of the individual.

      I wonder what N.T. Wright thinks about all of this. I remember my first exposure to his works, approximately 20 years ago in his New Perspective, where I saw what I considered (and still consider) to be the very dangerous shift in emphasis from the individual to the so-called `covenant community’ and I’m wondering if slipping in a `they’ to replace the `he’ could be connected with this.

      Yes – on Psalm 8 I’m entirely in agreement with you – the TNIV translation of this Psalm is very striking, in a bad way – I don’t believe that this is entirely innocent.

  12. The other problem is that even when a mindset is good it is often distorted in some fatal way or is abused in some way. For example ‘freedom of speech’ is good but it is flawed when it becomes intimidating and abusive. (Hard words to define). Just as literary freedom is good but the pornography that flows from it is not. Any societal freedoms only function well if there is personal responsibility and restraint.

    Feminism gave women some real gains but has overreached itself and become oppressive to males.

    Democracy is good but is tyrannised by short term goals of greed by the electorate.

    Everything that is a good man corrupts. It is a sorry story only alleviated by good news of a Saviour, Messish.


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