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Whitewashing the History of the Church


by James White

Catholic writer Steven O’Reilly Demonstrates Yet Again the Utter Circularity of Rome’s Use of Patristic Sources: A Response to an Article in the February, 2000 This Rock Magazine.

It is the constant theme of the modern resurgence in Roman Catholic apologetics: take the teaching of the Magisterium as the final word, and do to the early Fathers whatever you need to so as to substantiate the dogmatic teachings of Rome.  It is pleasant to read Roman scholars who have come to recognize that the early Church was not Roman in nature.  But Roman Catholic apologists have not caught on to the facts of the matter: they continue to function on the basis of pure anachronism, reading back into patristic writings concepts and ideas that were not a part of the theology and belief of the early Church. 

Examples abound, but the most recent issue of This Rock magazine, from Catholic Answers, provides us with a glowing example of this kind of eisegetical interpretation of historical materials.  Catholic writer Steven O’Reilly joins the growing group of writers repeating, endlessly, the chant provided by the Magisterium regarding papal primacy.  In an article that again shows the propensity of Catholic apologists to engage in Gail Riplinger-like behavior (i.e., to play games with the names of those they are reviewing), we are informed that my brief discussion of the patristic interpretation of John 21:15-17 is in fact “An Attempt to Whitewash Peter’s Primacy.”   It seems This Rock really loves my last name (the reader may wish to review the refutation of a previous article, “The White Man’s Burden.”  To do so, click here).  I cannot help but note in passing the irony of the fact that we have had a standing challenge to Karl Keating and Catholic Answers to debate right there in San Diego (their headquarters) that has gone unanswered for quite some time now.  It seems they prefer one-sided presentations to the type where both sides get equal time.

This new article from Catholic Answers focuses upon a page and a half of my book, The Roman Catholic Controversy, which, interestingly enough, has never been reviewed by any Roman Catholic apologetics journal.  I should be thankful, however, that 1) the book has finally been mentioned, four years after its release, and 2) Mr. O’Reilly does not engage in the same kind of ad-hominem writing that has marked previous articles in This Rock and Envoy magazines.  

The section reviewed begins with the citation of John 21:15-17, and then reads as follows:

Cyril of Alexandria demonstrates that the earliest, and most logical, understanding of this passage is that held by Protestants, not Roman Catholics. In commenting on this passage he said,

If anyone asks for what cause he asked Simon only, though the other disciples were present, and what he means by “Feed my lambs,” and the like, we answer that St. Peter, with the other disciples, had been already chosen to the Apostleship, but because meanwhile Peter had fallen (for under great fear he had thrice denied the Lord), he now heals him that was sick, and exacts a threefold confession in place of his triple denial, contrasting the former with the latter, and compensating the fault with the correction.

Here we have the gracious Lord restoring the Apostle who, in his brash impetuosity, had promised to follow Him even to death, and yet had denied Him three times. The three-fold question of Peter, followed by the command to feed or shepherd Christ’s sheep, is restorative in nature. Nothing in the passage would even begin to suggest to us that this means that the other Apostles were not likewise commissioned to feed and pastor Christ’s flock on an equal basis with Simon Peter. There is no indication that only Peter is told to shepherd God’s flock. Indeed, if such were the case, Paul seems to have been ignorant of this, for he instructed the Ephesians elders in Acts 20:28 to “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”  Paul does not say, “As Peter is the chief shepherd, you act as undershepherds of the flock of God.”  No, again, the only way that such an understanding can be found is if we take a much later development and read it back into the texts, as our Roman Catholic friends are forced to do. This passage in no way sets Peter apart as the prince of the Apostles. Instead, it shows that he was in need of special pastoral care on the part of Christ.

A footnote is attached to the quote of Cyril which reads:

As cited by George Salmon, The Infallibility of the Church, pp. 345-346. B.C. Butler [The Church and Infallibility: A Reply to the Abridged “Salmon” (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1954), pp. 190-191)] can only point to another reference in Cyril (Migne, Patrologię Gręę, lxxii, 424) that refers not to John 21, but Matthew 16, which says the Lord appointed Peter “shepherd.”  Of course He did: just as He appointed the rest of the Apostles.

This is the material ostensibly under review.  Unfortunately, the article makes no pretense to fair review of the material: it begins, and ends, with the assertion of Roman dogmatic interpretation.  No attempt is made to provide a positive defense of that dogmatic interpretation: it is assumed, never proven.  In fact, that is the problem with all Roman attempts at exegesis: they cannot meaningfully engage the text due to the over-riding consideration of Rome’s dogmatic teachings.  The proposed meaning of the text does not come from the text but from Rome’s theology. It is placed onto the text eisegetically.  O’Reilly begins his article with the assertion of what John 21 means: no attempt is made, whatsoever, to actually address the passage on any level: grammatically, lexically, syntactically, contextually, or in any other way.  He begins,

In John’s gospel Jesus—addressing himself specifically to Peter—charges Peter to “feed my lambs,” “tend my sheep,” and “feed my sheep.”  “Tending” and “feeding” are metaphors for governing and teaching, a clear indication that Christ intended Peter to govern and teach his “sheep,” i.e., the whole Church.  Peter, and through him his successors, the bishops of Rome, are granted a universal primacy over the Church.

Nothing in the rest of the article provides us with any basis upon which to accept these claims.  This is merely the repetition of the claims of Vatican I, yet, it becomes obvious that this is where O’Reilly begins and therefore, not surprisingly, ends as well.  The fact that this involves circular reasoning does not seem to find a place in the consciousness of the defender of Roman claims, but to the person seeking meaningful biblical and historical argumentation, it is a clear indication of the fallacy of the Roman position.  We are not told why “tending” and “feeding” are metaphors for governing and teaching in the Papal sense.  We are not told why, in light of the context, and the preponderance of the interpretation of the early church (even admitted by O’Reilly), these words do not simply indicate the restoration of Peter to the position of apostle and leader in the Church, along with the rest of the Apostles.   We are not told why shepherding sheep must mean shepherding all sheep everywhere.  No passage, anywhere in Scripture, makes reference to Peter’s “successors,” nor to the bishop of Rome (nor could it: there was no single bishop in Rome until long after the last of the Apostles had died).  The fact that O’Reilly can find in this passage such momentous conclusions proves that something other than the text is in view.

As we review the article, I will ask a few questions:  1) Did Cyril say what I said he said?  2) Is Cyril’s interpretation (that John 21:15-17 is restorative in nature) the earliest we find in the patristic writings?  3) Do we find other fathers, earlier than Cyril, applying this passage as modern Rome does?  4)  What is the general viewpoint of the fathers who do address this passage?  With which interpretation is it consistent?  By keeping these things in view, we will discover that this article in fact demonstrates that my assertion was correct: despite all the other issues raised by O’Reilly, in the end, it is confirmed that Cyril did write these words and that in fact the majority of early Fathers agreed.


Twice in his article O’Reilly is not perfectly accurate in his statement of the Protestant view regarding Peter expressed in my writings.  In the introduction to the article it is said that I attempt “to show that Peter’s role was indistinguishable from that of the other apostles.”   And later he writes, “White claims that Peter’s role is indistinguishable from the other apostles, saying John 21:15-17 does not establish that ‘only Peter was told to shepherd God’s flock.’”  It is true that as far as apostleship is concerned, there is no exaltation of Peter to a position of primacy above his fellows.  But surely his role is “distinguishable.”  Peter is the first to preach the gospel to Gentiles, and takes the lead in many of the initial works of the church.  He is the apostle to the Jews, just as Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles.  So it is not the Protestant claim that Peter’s ministry is not special or unique: the claim is that he is not given a primacy, made a Pope, with absolute jurisdictional authority over even the other apostles.

The Ephesian Elders

The first point of disagreement raised by O’Reilly has to do with my comments on Acts 20 and Paul’s charge to the Ephesian elders.  He argues that this does not mean that Paul was not aware of the “Petrine primacy” since the shepherding referred to in Acts 20 is limited in scope.   The Ephesian elders were bishops only in the Ephesian church.  Peter, it is claimed, was shepherd over all.  However, O’Reilly assumes the existence of the Petrine primacy.  He makes no effort to prove his point.  He writes,

The Lord, on the other hand, in addressing Peter neither implies nor places any such limitations upon the jurisdiction of his office.  Peter is to feed and shepherd—teach and govern—the Lord’s flock “among which” the Lord placed him—that is, the whole flock, the universal Church.

This is classic circular argumentation.  If Christ chose to place Peter in a position of apostleship where He ministered to only a portion of the Church, would this not involve feeding and shepherding the sheep?  Of course.  So, upon what basis do we assume, as O’Reilly does, that these words, which make no reference to an office, make no reference to successors, and make no reference to power, jurisdiction, or the church, mean that Jesus is here making Peter a singular, distinctive leader of the universal Church?  The only source of such an interpretation is Rome’s own claims for herself: the text says nothing in support of O’Reilly’s conclusion.

But, let’s accept the argument for a moment and see where it leads.  If the limitation of the sphere of the Ephesians elders is relevant, then it follows that the following would be relevant as well:

(for He who effectually worked for Peter in his apostleship to the circumcised effectually worked for me also to the Gentiles) (Galatians 2:8)

Peter’s apostleship was specifically to the “circumcised”?  Such is the statement of the text.  By the time of Paul’s meeting with Peter the role Peter had exercised in opening the door of the gospel had been reduced.  God chose Paul, not Peter, to be the Apostle to the Gentiles.  One could easily argue that since the Gentile mission was significantly larger and more central to the future of the Church than the Jewish, that this would “clearly” indicate a supremacy of Paul, not Peter, but such would involve the same kind of eisegetical interpretation rampant in Roman Catholic writings.  The fact of the matter is that nowhere in the New Testament do we see this “universal authority” of Peter outside of the universal authority held by all apostles of Christ in the primitive Church.  The Ephesian elders ruled in the Church in Ephesus, not as underlings of Peter in Rome, but as appointed by the Apostle Paul so to carry out those duties.   When the apostles were no longer on earth, the eldership functioned as the New Testament indicated: as the office that gives direction and guidance to the local assemblies, which was the order of the Church ordained by the Apostles.  This primitive form continued side-by-side with the episcopal form in the earliest years, even prevailing at Rome until the fifth decade of the second century.

Cyril on Papal Primacy

O’Reilly continues his review by noting that “it is true Cyril stresses the restorative nature of the passage in question.”  This is at the very least encouraging: a recognition of the truthfulness of my assertion.  But our author is quick to assert that “it does not follow that Cyril’s statement is incompatible with the Catholic understanding.”  I quickly point out that the assertion I made is that Cyril 1) does not see in the text the establishment of Peter in a position of primacy, as modern Rome asserts, and 2) that this is the earliest interpretation found amongst the Fathers: the Roman interpretation is the later (much later) development.   O’Reilly never provides a single counter-citation showing an earlier pro-Roman interpretation of the passage at hand, which seems, in and of itself, to prove my point.  Instead, he attempts to say that Cyril must have understood the passage in a way commensurate with Rome since, elsewhere, he makes statements O’Reilly interprets as being consistent with Roman claims.  No attempt is made to provide any quotations from Cyril about John 21.  Instead, a lengthy discussion is introduced that attempts to say that Cyril believed that the bishop of Rome was the sole successor of Peter, which, evidently, means that he must have understood John 21 as modern Roman Catholics do even if we have no evidence in his own writings that he did so.  This end-run, while most interesting, only shows the desperation of the Roman apologist who refuses to admit that in fact the earliest interpretations found in tradition do not present the very belief they must read into all ancient patristic literature: the belief in Roman supremacy.

The evidence presented that Cyril would have held to the Roman concept of Papal primacy consists of three points: 1) that elsewhere Cyril speaks of Peter being appointed “shepherd.”  O’Reilly assumes this means chief shepherd of the Church universal; 2) That in speaking of Matthew 16 Cyril teaches that Christ set Peter as shepherd over the Church (no reference is given); and 3) that Cyril referred the case of Nestorius to Pope Celestine and acted as representative of the bishop of Rome at the Council of Ephesus.  However, even if all of these things proved that Cyril viewed Peter as having a primacy over Paul and the other apostles, and that this primacy was passed on to the bishop of Rome alone (and no attempt is made to prove this from the data cited), it would not follow that Cyril viewed John 21:15-17 as establishing Peter as the chief shepherd of the flock.  But, even here, the Roman apologist is in a difficult position.  In response I note:

1)  Yes, Peter was appointed shepherd of the flock of God.  As I have noted, it is the burden of the Roman controversialist to prove that it is the “universal faith” of the Church, found in the “unanimous consent” of the Fathers, that this means Peter is a Pope, the chief shepherd, the pastor of all Christians in a way utterly unlike Paul or John.  What is sure is that even if Cyril believed this (and saying Peter is shepherd does not, without invoking the most obvious form of special pleading, mean this), he did not see John 21:15-17 teaching it. 

2)  It is interesting to note the selective use of patristic sources that, of necessity, marks Roman Catholic controversialists.  While the Protestant is free to allow the Fathers to be themselves, recognizing that each ancient writer was closer or farther from biblical truth, depending on their learning, their historical context, etc., the Roman Catholic is forced to place each writer in a preconceived mold, often resulting in great contradiction.  We will see this below in the citation of John Chrysostom.  Here we find Cyril’s position being only partially presented.   The same Cyril, commenting on Luke 9:43-45 in Homily 53, said,

When the blessed Peter had been counted worthy of a grace thus glorious and wonderful, being in the neighborhood of Caesarea Philippi, he made a correct and faultless confession of faith in Him, saying, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And what was the reward of which he was thought worthy? It was to hear Christ say, Blessed art thou, Simeon, son of Jonah; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but My Father in heaven. And he further received surpassing honors; for he was entrusted by Him with the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and the confession of his faith was made the firm foundation for the Church. For thou, He says, art a stone; and upon this stone I will build My Church; and the gates of hell shall not overpower it.  Saint Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of Saint Luke, Homily 53, trans. R. Payne Smith (Studion Publishers, Inc., 1983), p. 232.

Are we to believe that an ancient writer who saw Matthew 16 being fulfilled in the confession of Peter (in opposition to the dogmatic interpretation of Rome that sees this being fulfilled in Peter himself) was actually intent upon believing that the bishop of Rome was the sole successor of Peter, the vicar of Christ on earth?  It seems it is being suggested that a man who interpreted both John 21 and Matthew 16 contrary to Rome’s modern view still, in spite of this, held to the Roman view!  We can see here how a precommitment to Roman supremacy determines the outcome of any study of patristic sources, facts and logic notwithstanding.

3)  The final argument is based upon Cyril’s alliance with Celestine regarding the Nestorian situation.   But anyone familiar with Cyril’s personal behavior well knows this is not much of an argument.  As Schaff notes:

He was the most zealous and the most influential champion of the anti-Nestorian orthodoxy at the third ecumenical council, and scrupled at no measures to annihilate his antagonist.  Besides the weapons of theological learning and acumen, he allowed himself also the use of wilful misrepresentation, artifice, violence, instigation of people and monks at Constantinople, and repeated bribery of imperial officers, even of the emperor’s sister Pulcheria.  By his bribes he loaded the church property at Alexandria with debt, though he left considerable wealth even to his kindred, and adjured his successor, the worthless Dioscurus, with the most solemn religious ceremonies, not to disturb his heirs.  (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, III:944).

Pointing to flowery and exalted language used by such a person in the prosecution of a cause that saw him use violence and bribery to execute is hardly an argument that will carry much weight with anyone familiar with the historical context.  Cyril was not above lauding anyone who would support him, nor above beating senseless anyone who opposed him.  But, of course, none of this is relevant to the actual topic at hand: the fact remains, despite all the dust thrown in the air in the attempt to obscure it, that Cyril’s understanding of John 21 is non-Papal, and does represent the earliest and most widely taken view. 


Before looking at the next section we must lament the seemingly unavoidable straw-man argumentation that marks everything Catholic Answers does.  Without any reason or basis, O’Reilly writes, “Further, it was Cyril, whom White attempts to conscript to his cause as if the Alexandrine patriarch was a proto-Protestant….”  Just as Envoy magazine falsely accused me of turning the church leaders at Nicea into Baptists (see my article at and my response to the Envoy article in the CRI Journal volume 21, number 4), so too This Rock cannot abide the fact that a Protestant can quote the early Fathers against their own position.  In reality, it is the Roman apologist who must turn all the early Fathers into Roman Catholics: I can simply allow them to be what they were.  I don’t have to turn them into Protestants or anything else: by just letting them speak for themselves it becomes obvious that such things as the modern Papal interpretation of John 21:15-17 was not the view of the early Church.

Cyril of Jerusalem

Next Mr. O’Reilly attempts to enlist the aid of Cyril of Jerusalem.  He does so in this context:

White claims ancient Christian commentators “did not find the constitution of the Church in these [biblical] passages, as later claimed by Rome.”  However, this is simply not the case.  Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386), in the same breath that he speaks of Peter’s three denials, calls Peter “the chiefest and foremost of the apostles” (Catechetical Lectures 2:19).

So does it follow that the early Church did see the very constitution of the Church in Matthew 16 and John 21?  Surely such is a huge leap.  Let’s look first at what Cyril of Jerusalem actually said in Catechetical Lectures 2:19:

What then?  When Nabuchodonosor, after having done such deeds, had made confession, did God give him pardon and the kingdom, and when thou repentest shall He not give thee the remission of sins, and the kingdom of heaven, if thou live a worthy life?  The LORD is loving unto man, and swift to pardon, but slow to punish.  Let no man therefore despair of his own salvation.  Peter, the chiefest and foremost of the Apostles, denied the Lord thrice before a little main: but he repented himself, and wept bitterly.  Now weeping shews the repentance of the heart: and therefore he not only received forgiveness for his denial, but also held his Apostolic dignity unforfeited.

What a difference context makes!  We note just a few things: 1) the passage is about the need for repentance.  It is not about the church, offices in the church, or the interpretation of John 21, specifically.  2)  Peter is brought forward as a tremendous example because of his position as apostle.  3)  If there is any reference to John 21 here, it is obviously in reference to the very viewpoint Cyril of Alexandria presented, for Cyril of Jerusalem speaks of Peter’s receiving forgiveness and also holding “his Apostolic dignity unforfeited”!  This would support the restorative interpretation presented by Cyril of Alexandria, not the exaltation interpretation of modern Rome.  The very fact that a passage that presents Peter as an example of restorative repentance has to be pressed into use in this manner shows how utterly desperate the Roman Catholic apologist is to find substantiation for his anachronistic interpretation of patristic sources.

But again we find no basis for saying that the early Church saw in these passages the constitution of the entire Church.  Where is the constant discussion of these passages from Ignatius forward, if, indeed, these are the passages upon which the very Church herself is founded?  They do not exist.  Therefore, the assertion stands unchallenged.

John Chrysostom

O’Reilly comes closest to providing a meaningful counter-citation in Chrysostom’s interpretation (Commentary on St. John’s Gospel, 88).  The mixed view Chrysostom provides, including both the restorative view as well as an assertion that Peter is here given a “chief authority” is almost supportive of the Roman viewpoint.  Unfortunately for O’Reilly, Chrysostom is no friend to the exalted claims of the Roman papacy.  Even if Chrysostom were to believe Peter was a Pope, it does not follow that he would believe the bishops of Rome were Peter’s sole successors.  Indeed, it is well known that he did not believe any such thing.  For even though he saw an element of authority in the restoration of Peter, he likewise did not see Matthew 16 (the key Papal passage) in the way Rome does today.  There are numerous passages that could be cited, but the clearest is:

Upon this rock.   He did not say ‘upon Peter’ for it is not upon the man, but upon his own faith that the church is built.  And what is this faith?  ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’”  (In Pentecosten, Migne 52.806.75-807.1)

Vatican I described such a view as “perverse,” but as the student of history knows, it was a well-attested position in ancient times, far better attested than any view commensurate with Rome’s.  Still, the citation of Chrysostom is O’Reilly’s best work: and it shows again that 1) Cyril’s view preceded Chrysostom’s, and 2) the restorative emphasis was found even when a special privilege was seen in the passage.  Interestingly, this did not lead Chrysostom to believe the bishop of Rome was his superior, nor did it lead him to view Matthew 16 as Rome does, nor Luke 22:31-32.


It does not seem that any discussion of ancient theology can be pursued without invoking the great name of Augustine.  But surely by now Roman controversialists should be aware that Augustine is no friend of their cause.  Unless it is assumed that their audience will not check things out for themselves, the citation of Augustine is devastating to Roman pretensions on this topic.  Only a glancing (and a-contextual) citation is provided, that being the famous passage in Augustine’s anti-Manichaen work.  It is admitted, thankfully, that even Augustine gives the restorative interpretation of the passage (supporting my own position).  The quotation is given, unfortunately, to make it look like the words cited are relevant to John 21 when they are not.  Augustine stands firmly in the non-Papal class in his interpretation of the key Papal texts, including Matthew 16, John 21, and Luke 22.  And should anyone think he held a view of the bishop of Rome as the universal head of the Church with infallible teaching authority, I suggest a brief review of the reaction of Augustine and the North African Churches to the silly restoration of Pelagius by the incompetent bishop of Rome Zosimus is in order.

Quoting Rome in Support of Rome

Following the failed attempt to find any relevant citations on John 21 that precede Cyril, and having hopefully lost the reader in the large number of issues raised since the original thesis was introduced, citations from Roman pontiffs made in the service of their own aggrandizement are adduced.  What is incredible is the fact that the statement of the Council of Florence (written eleven hundred years after Cyril) is quoted as if relevant to the issue at hand!  Anyone slightly familiar with the history of this “council” and its utter rejection by Orthodoxy can only find its citation further evidence of the bankruptcy of the position being defended.  See Schaff’s History (VI: 179-185) for details.

O’Reilly’s Conclusion

After a few pages of disjointed and often irrelevant citations, our author concludes,

Clearly, the constitution of the Church, contrary to White’s objections, has been seen in such verses down through the centuries since the time of Christ.

Obviously, this is a statement of faith, words of wishful thinking, not the conclusion of any meaningful argument.  The earliest materials presented come from the period of the fourth century (not the time of Christ); they skip past entire centuries where not a word in support of Papal pretensions is to be found; and we have seen that the materials that were presented were based upon either avoiding the real issue (the historic interpretation of the key papal passages, especially John 21) or by inserting anachronistic interpretations into passages far too feeble to bear the load.  Yet, the Roman apologist can offer such piece-meal material and then conclude, “See, I have proven my case.  Everyone has always agreed with me.”  Such wishful thinking is obvious to the person approaching the topic with any semblance of fairness.   O’Reilly continues:

We have the plain words of Scripture that Jesus bestowed to Peter universal jurisdiction over the Church.   The Greek and Latin Fathers understood the verses in question in the sense of and Catholic teaching (sic).

It almost takes ones breath away to realize that our writer is being perfectly serious here.  Though not a shred of evidence has been offered to support these grand sweeping claims, yet they are actually seen in the mind of the person submitted to Roman supremacy as having been established.   From the very start this has been the assertion of the article: the opening paragraph begins with this assumption, and here we have the very same concept appearing in the conclusion.  Unbiased persons recognize this as circular reasoning.  The faithful son of Rome thinks it is valid argumentation.

So what have we seen?  First, every statement cited from The Roman Catholic Controversy has been verified.  No earlier or more pervasive understanding of John 21:15-17 has been presented.  Therefore, the entire article is a study in how to not respond to meaningful Protestant argumentation.   Next, we have been offered no foundation upon which to accept the very first assertion of the article: that John 21 speaks of a universal teaching office given to Peter and then through Peter to his successors.  No attempt has been made to show how it is that the passage can speak to both the restoration of Peter from his fall as well as the establishment in him of an infallible and perpetual teaching office.  While the article attempts to say that the early church did see in these passages the very constitution of the Church, no evidence has been provided outside of disjointed citations that bear no direct relationship to the interpretation of the passage.  The self-serving claims of Popes, and the humorous example of the “ecumenical” council of Florence is all that our writer has mustered, and these come from long after the time of Cyril of Alexandria.  Such amounts to saying, “The modern Roman position is true because modern Rome says so.”  But then again, when one thinks about it, that is all Rome has to say in any case.  And that is why knowledgeable Protestants reject Rome’s claims, and invite all men everywhere to likewise reject such pretensions and stand for the freedom of the Christian faith.

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