Soul: Christian Concepts
SOUL: CHRISTIAN CONCEPTS
The concept of the soul in Christian literature and tradition has a complex history. Moreover, Christian thought about its destiny is by no means uniform, nor is it always even clear.
The New Testament word psuchē is rooted in the Hebrew nefesh, and in English both are generally translated "soul." In primitive Semitic thought nefesh (Arabic, nafs ) is a fine, diminutive replica of the body. As such it can be contrasted with ruaḥ, an onomatopoeic word that mimics the sound of breathing and is used to designate the spirit or principle of life that in such thought is seen in the breath, which stands in contrast to the flesh. The New Testament word psuchē, however, has complex overtones associated with the concept of life, sometimes also signifying what today would be called the self and often assuming a special connotation as the seat of the supernatural or eternal life, the life that cannot be destroyed by the malice of humans as can the body, yet can be destroyed by God (Mt. 10:39). So valuable is the psuchē that not even the whole of the material universe could compensate for its loss (Mt. 16:26, Mk. 8:36ff.).
When the psuchē is fully dedicated to God it acquires a special character (1 Pt. 1:22, 4:19), and in this dedication it can be anchored in God and be aware of possessing eternal life, assured of salvation from all that could alienate it from that inheritance (Heb. 6:19). Such is the "soul" or "self" that is under the care of Christ. Yet since the psuchē is spiritual, not material, it is not to be guarded as one guards an earthly mansion, nor to be placed like a precious heirloom in a safe deposit box, nor tended as one tends a delicate plant. On the contrary, Jesus urges his disciples to let go of it, abandoning it to God's care (Mt. 16:25, Mk. 8:35, Lk. 9:24, Jn. 12:25). Such is the paradox of self-giving, a concept that finds expression also in Hindu and Buddhist thought.
In the New Testament then, the psuchē, although fundamentally rooted in a Hebrew concept, encompasses so much of what is today understood as the "self" that it confronts one with many of the very complex problems to be found in modern discussions of selfhood. Yet the term carries also other connotations, as shall be seen later. Furthermore, in its adjectival form, psuchikos, it can be used to designate the natural, biological life of humans, as distinguished from the spiritual life, which is called pneumatikos (1 Cor. 2:14, 15:46; Jude 19). The dualistic distinction implied in this usage echoes one that is familiar to readers of gnostic literature. Psuchē, however, always refers to that dimension of humanity that is of eternal value and therefore contrasted with the human carnal embodiment.
In Ezekiel (13:17ff.) there is an echo of the primitivistic belief that the nefesh can slip out of the nostrils or another orifice during sleep (hence the old superstition against sleeping with one's mouth open) or, in the case of violent death, at the point of the assassin's sword. Ezekiel warns his bearers against women who sew frilly sleeves around their wrists, "the better to ensnare lives." This passage reflects both the old material concept of the nefesh and the ancient fear of witches, who made a profitable business out of nocturnal exploits in which they stole the nefashot of unwary sleepers, catching their souls like moths in handkerchiefs and then selling them to families with a member who, as one might say today, had "lost his mind." The Arabs entertained similar views about the vulnerability of the nafs to such evil agencies.
Soul and Spirit
The English words soul and spirit are attempts to represent the two sets of ideas found in the Bible: Soul is continuous with the Hebrew nefesh and the Greek psuchē, while spirit is continuous with the Hebrew ruaḥ and the Greek pneuma. The one set of ideas, however, cannot be entirely dissociated from the other. For example, when one thinks of the ideas of wind, breath, or spirit, one would probably attach any of them to pneuma rather than to psuchē; nevertheless, one should bear in mind that the word psuchē has an etymological connection with the verb psuchein ("to breathe"), as does the Latin animus with anemos, the Greek word meaning "wind." So some study of the concept of spirit is not only relevant to but necessary for any study of the Christian concept of the soul.
Ruaḥ, which the New Testament writers translate as pneuma and which is traditionally rendered "spirit" in English, does not have the quasi-physical connotation that nefesh has. For although ruaḥ is sometimes used to signify "wind" or "breath" (e.g., in Job 15:30), it is not accurately described as ambiguous in meaning since in Hebrew it refers simply to the principle of vital activity, however manifested. The Hebrews did not make the sharp distinction, as does Western tradition, between the physical connotations of "wind" and the spiritual connotations of "spirit" or "mind." So the effects of ruaḥ may be heard as one hears a hurricane, or seen as one might see breath on a mirror or the dancing of branches of trees on a windy day. Or it may be perceived in more complex ways, as one perceives the resutls of God's action in human events. Since the ancients saw in breathing the evidence of life and in its absence the lack of life, breath would seem an obvious locus for ruaḥ. Nevertheless, they would so see it only as they see in the brain an obvious locus for mental activity, although not even the most positivistic of contemporary analytical philosophers would identify mental activity simply with the three pounds of pinkish-gray tissue people carry in their heads. Ruaḥ is also the inner strength of a man or woman, which is weakened in times of despondency and is revived in times of exhilaration. Short-tempered people are short of ruaḥ (Ex. 6:9). The ruaḥ of God (Elohim) is uniquely powerful in its effects on humans, affecting them in all sorts of ways, not all of them benevolent. Since the Hebrews had no special word for nature as did the Greeks (phusis ), one word had to do service for all seemingly superhuman activity. God sends plagues and earthquakes as well as gentle rain and sunshine. The ruaḥ of the Lord, however, is that of righteousness and love, of justice and mercy, inspiring the utterances of the prophets upon whom it falls.
Behind the New Testament use of pneuma lie these earlier uses of ruaḥ. The spirit of God is given to Jesus in baptism (Mt. 3:13ff.) and from Jesus to the disciples. John the Baptist distinguishes the baptism he gives from the one Jesus is to give, which is to be by the Holy Spirit (en pneumati hagiō ) and by fire (Mt. 3:11). Here John is represented as anticipating the experience of the disciples on the day of Pentecost, described in Acts 2 as the descent of the Spirit on the assembly as if in "tongues of fire." The extent to which the New Testament writers accounted the Holy Spirit of God a separate entity, as in the trinitarian doctrine developed in later Christian thought, is, to say the least, obscure and need not be of concern here. Pneuma, however, is very frequently used, both in a somewhat pedestrian way (e.g., the disciples are afraid, thinking they are seeing a ghost, Lk. 24:37) and in more reverential senses having the full range of Hebrew meanings along with special meanings arising out of the pentecostal experience. Both Paul and John make notable use of the antinomy of flesh (sarx ) and spirit (pneuma ). What makes one righteous is circumcision not of the flesh but of the spirit (Rom. 2:29). Had not the psalmist noted that the Lord was less pleased by burnt offerings than by a humble and contrite heart (Ps. 51)? Christians do not walk according to the flesh but according to the spirit (Rom. 8:13).
Although Paul follows traditional usage in such matters, he also uses pneuma in several less expected ways, for example, as if he were alluding to the soul (2 Cor. 2:13) and as if referring to the mind as the seat of human consciousness (1 Cor. 7:34). He also writes as if mystically identifying the soul or conscious self of the Christian with the spiritual realm or dimension to which it has been introduced through Christ; he writes as if the Christian were so absorbed into Christ that everything he or she thought or said or did issued thence. Paul has a tendency to express his dominant sense of mystical union with Christ by coalescing all such distinctions as might lie between psuchē and pneuma, focusing upon what today would more readily be called a spiritual dimension of being, one in which the human participates in the divine.
John pointedly contrasts sarx ("flesh") with pneuma ("spirit"), as in John 3:5–8. Because God is a spirit, all dealings with him are in the spiritual, not the carnal, dimension (Jn. 4:24). The words of Jesus are the revelation of God, and as such they are to be recognized as spirit (pneuma ) and life (zōē ). Spirit is symbolized by the physical act of breathing: In John 20:22 Jesus breathes on the apostles as a symbol of his bestowal of the Holy Spirit (pneuma hagion ). Alluding to the Holy Spirit, John uses the term paraklētos: the one who helps or pleads one's cause. This term had been used in classical Greek in much the same way as the Latin advocatus ("advocate," or the English counsel ). As used by John, it seems to recall the notion of the spirit of truth as used in the Qumran literature in the sense of "helper," where the typically gnostic contrast between the spirit of light and the spirit of darkness is also notable. Jesus, as God pitching his tent awhile in the carnal world of humankind, is he who can mediate between humans, in their mixed, carnal-spiritual state, and God, who is pure spirit. In the light of such modes of conceptualizing, the distinction between soul and spirit tends to evanesce. The contrast is between the carnal realm and the spiritual realm. The characteristics of the spirit (coming "like the rushing of a mighty wind" and "blowing where it listeth") become, then, descriptions of the way in which the spiritual dimension behaves; that is, it behaves otherwise than according to the "laws" of physics or biology.
To sum up: With the translation of nefesh as psuchē in the Greek version of the Bible (Septuagint), which the New Testament writers used, the ground is laid for the tendency toward the coalescence of the ideas suggested by the terms psuchē and pneuma. For both words focus on the traditional Semitic preoccupation with the idea of life. What matters to the spiritual person is not the life measured in days or years (bios ) but the spiritual energy, the inner life of a person, his or her zōē, which has the capacity to become everlasting. It is to this that the soul is to be resurrected, so that resurrection then entails an ongoing, everlasting state, which Christ has made possible even for sinful men and women. Thus the struggle in this life is not so much against flesh (sarx ) as "against the spiritual army of evil agencies" (pros ta pneumatika tes ponerias; Eph. 6:12). By extension, then, the soul, as the higher part of a human, becomes indistinguishable from the spiritual dimension of the human's being.
Still, one cannot easily overemphasize the fact that the New Testament Christians were heirs of a classical Hebrew view in which a human does not have a body or have a soul; he or she is a soul-body unity. Flesh and spirit, however, are opposed as evil and good aspects of humanity. Recognition of this may have opened the way to a later accommodation to the Greek soul-body dualism. In Hebrew thought the soul was sometimes conceived as if it were a sort of liquid in the jar of the body, one that can be diminished and also replenished. In Genesis 2:7 God breathed his Spirit into the very dust out of which he made humans, and the human being then "became a living soul." This imagery haunts Hebrew thought and the New Testament writers inherit the model it fostered.
Origin of the Soul
Within the development of Christian thought on the origin of the individual soul, three views have been maintained: (1) creationism, (2) traducianism, and (3) reincarnationism.
Creationism is the doctrine that God creates a new soul for each human being at conception. Upheld by Jerome, Hilary, and Peter Lombard, it was by far the most widely accepted view on the subject in the Middle Ages. Thomas Aquinas insisted upon it (Summa theologiae 1.118), and in the Reformed tradition the Calvinists generally taught it. Its consequences for certain moral questions, notably that of abortion, are clear.
Traducianism is the theory that the soul is transmitted along with the body by the parents. Forms of this view were proposed by some of the Fathers (such as Gregory of Nyssa and, notably, Tertullian), but in the Middle Ages it found little if any favor. Lutherans, however, tended to accept it, and in the early nineteenth century a modified form of it was proposed within the Roman Catholic tradition by the founder of the Rosminians, Antonio Rosmini-Serbati.
It is widely supposed that reincarnationism (a form of resurrection belief) is alien to Christian thought, but this supposition is not warranted by the evidence. The doctrine of the preexistence of the soul was certainly held by Origen and others in the tradition of Christian Platonism. Reincarnationism (not of course in its crude, primitivistic form, but in an ethical one, such as is found in Plato and in Indian philosophy) has a long and interesting, albeit partly underground, tradition in Christian thought and literature from early times down to the present day. Christian reincarnationists hold that the soul passes through many embodiments in the process of its development and spiritual growth and is judged accordingly, not on the basis of only one life of indeterminate duration. The soul, in this view, has a very long history, with origins antedating humanity itself.
Destiny of the Soul
Paul taught that because "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23), humans have no more entitlement to immortality than has any other form of life. Thanks, however, to the power of Christ's resurrection, every man and woman of the Christian way who truly believes in the power of Christ will rise with him (Phil. 3:21) in a body that will be like Christ's "glorious" body (tō sōmati tēs doxēs autou ). The resurrection of Christ makes humans capable of personal resurrection, yet they can attain their own resurrection only insofar as they appropriate the power of Christ, which they can do through believing in its efficacy and accepting his divine gift of salvation from death and victory over the grave.
Indeed, although notions of immortality are inextricably woven into New Testament thought alongside the central resurrection theme, they are dependent on the latter in the thought of Paul and other New Testament writers. For all human beings, death has always been the supreme terror, the "final enemy"; now, Paul proclaims, it has been conquered, making possible the immortal life of the soul.
Yet one must not expect to find in the first century any clearly formulated universal doctrine of the afterlife. The expectation of the end of the age and the imminent return of Christ (the Parousia) so governed the Christian outlook during that period as to discourage speculation about the nature of the soul or whatever it is in humans that survives the physical body. Paul himself pointedly discouraged idle speculation on the precise nature of the resurrected body (1 Cor. 15:35–58). As, however, the hope of the Parousia gradually lost much of its urgency, the need for formulation of an answer to such questions pressed itself on theological minds. Since the biblical writers had left these questions so open, and since a variety of beliefs from throughout the Mediterranean world had consciously or otherwise affected those who were thinking seriously about such matters, different and sometimes incompatible views were brought together. Even before the Christian era the Jews had been entertaining beliefs about the afterlife that had not been in the general mold of their classical thought but had been picked up from foreign sources after the Exile (587/6 bce). In the time of Jesus, for instance, some (such as the Pharisees) believed in a resurrection from the dead which others (for example, the Sadducees) repudiated.
In classical Hebrew thought the souls of the dead went to Sheʾol, the counterpart of the Hades of Greek mythology, a sort of nonworld, an underground place of darkness and dust so dreary that, as Homer remarked, one would rather be a poor beggar in the land of the living than a king in the land of the dead. Yet in later Hebrew thought sophia ("wisdom") is seen as delivering human beings from Sheʾol (Prov. 15:24). Unlike souls in the hell of later Christian theology, who have put themselves beyond God's benevolent power, those in Sheʾol could be the objects of God's care, for his power extends even there (Dt. 32:22, Ps. 139:8). In the New Testament, the concept of Sheʾol is sometimes replaced by that of death, for example in Paul's use of the Greek thanatos in 1 Corinthians 15:55, quoting Hosea 13:14. However, in Acts 2:27, quoting Psalms 16:10, the term haides is retained.
In the rabbinical thought of the century before the advent of Christianity, sheʾol came to mean a place exclusively for the wicked. The righteous go to pardes ("paradise," or, more strictly, "garden"), a late Hebrew term derived from the Greek paradeisos, the Septuagint translation for "Garden of Eden." Pardes was understood as a celestial restoration of the original, unfallen state of humanity. Sometimes, however, it represented an intermediate state between the death of the righteous and the final judgment—hence Jesus' promise to the penitent thief that they would meet that same day in "paradise" (a passage that would otherwise present grave interpretative difficulties), and other similar usages in the New Testament.
Along with such developments comes the notion of Gehenna as a pit of fire into which the wicked are to be thrown to be burned like trash. The symbolism of this transitional, intertestamental period is, however, by no means consistent; and the confusion is carried over into the New Testament, where both haidēs and geenna (Mt. 18:9 and Mk. 9:43) have been traditionally rendered "hell" in English, although they have different connotations in the Greek text. Hades, although it can function as a storehouse for the dead who await judgment (as in Rv. 20:13–14) and as a destructive power like death (as in Mt. 16:18), can also be (as in Lk. 16:23) a place of punishment indistinguishable from Gehenna.
The concept of Gehenna as a dumping ground for the incineration of the wicked originates with the "Valley of the son of Hinnom," the place on the boundary between Judah and Benjamin that in later Hebrew literature had an unsavory reputation as the site of a cultic shrine where human sacrifice was offered (2 Kgs. 23:10; 2 Chr. 28:3, 33:6). When reference is made in Isaiah 66:24 to the place where the dead bodies of those who have rebelled against the Lord shall lie, this valley is the place being alluded to. In 2 Esdras 7:6 Gehenna has become a furnace within sight of paradise. In Jewish apocalyptic literature it was often seen as a pit of unquenchable fire in which the wicked are destroyed, body and soul, a notion echoed in Matthew 10:28. The writer of Revelation calls this destination of the wicked "the second death" (21:8). In this Gehenna imagery lies the origin of the popular medieval concept of hell, in which, however, the soul, being indestructible, cannot be extinguished by the fire but is tormented everlastingly.
In early Christian thought, such a background for the concept of the soul and its destiny resulted in a confusion that no appeal to scripture could possibly clear, since the confusion was already embedded in the Bible itself. So one finds that Tertullian, writing in his De anima (c. 210), assigns to the soul a sort of corporality. This tendency is to be found in other anti-gnostic writers of the period, including his contemporary Irenaeus. By contrast, Origen (c. 185–c. 254) and his influential Christian school at Alexandria taught that the soul preexisted in an incorporeal state and was imprisoned in a physical body as a result of its former waywardness. Origen probably also taught a form of reincarnationism. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330–c. 395), Nemesius (who was bishop of Emesa toward the end of the fourth century), and the Greek theologian Maximos the Confessor (c. 580–662), all interpreted the biblical concepts of the soul along Platonic lines and in the general tradition of Origen and his school.
In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas follows the doctrine of the soul presented in Aristotle's Eudemus, teaching that, while body and soul together constitute a unity, the soul, as the "form" of the body, is an individual "spiritual substance" and as such is capable of leading a separate existence after the death of the body. This medieval doctrine of the soul, while largely determining the official teaching of the Roman Catholic church on the nature of the soul and its destiny, also indelibly imprinted itself on the theology of the Reformation. For the classical reformers, although contemporaneous with the great Renaissance movement in Europe, were thoroughly medieval in the mold of their theological thinking. The fact that Thomas described the essence of the pain of hell as the loss of the vision of God did little to mitigate the horror of hell in the popular mind.
In popular preaching during the Middle Ages and for centuries thereafter, hell was invariably depicted as a physical fire in which the souls of the damned, being somehow endowed with temporary bodies equipped to suffer physical pain, are eventually summoned on the Last Day to have their original bodies returned and enabled to suffer everlasting torture under the same conditions. The angels, however, according to Thomas, have no physical bodies; therefore Satan and the other denizens of hell must be equipped in some other way to undergo, as they certainly must, the punishment superabundantly due to them in the place of torment over which they reign. Nor could Dante's obviously symbolic treatment and allegorical vision of hell in the Commedia have assuaged the horror of hell in the popular mind. After all, much of Dante's genius lay in his ability to invest his great epic with an extraordinary realism that fixed itself on the minds of even those readers whose literary education had accustomed them to the allegorical methods so dear to the medieval mind.
Out of confusion in the concept of the soul, then, had sprung an increasing confusion in the Christian view of its destiny, making eschatology the least coherent aspect of the Christian theological tradition. For example, the soul has an independent existence and is sometimes envisioned, in Platonic fashion, as well rid of the burden of its physical encumbrance. Yet in the end the whole person, body and soul, must be restored in order to enjoy the fruits of Christ's redemption. In the first century, on account of the imminent expectation of the Parousia, Christians could plausibly see the separation of soul from body as a very temporary state of affairs, as represented in the catacombs by such inscriptions as "Dormit in pace" ("He sleeps in peace") and "Dormit in Christo" ("He sleeps in Christ"). As time went on, however, such a notion, although persisting to this day in pious epitaphs, could no longer serve as a theologically satisfactory account of what happens to the soul during a waiting period between death and the general resurrection of the dead. For it would suggest, if not entail, the view that heaven and hell are uninhabited until that general resurrection shall occur. Such a view is not conformable to the standard vision of Christian piety on this subject—least of all where, as in Roman Catholic tradition, the saints are already in heaven (the Church Triumphant) interceding for and otherwise helping their fellow Christians in the Church Militant on earth. Moreover, both the words of Jesus to the penitent thief (Lk. 23:43) and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19), with their implication of a paradisial, Garden-of-Eden bliss, surely exclude the notion of a sleep till the Day of Judgment.
Furthermore, out of the doctrine of the intermediate state, which is at least foreshadowed in late Judaism and found in early Christian thought in a rudimentary form, was gradually developed the doctrine of purgatory. The concept of purgatory is of singular importance in the Christian doctrine of the life of the soul. Abused though the doctrine of purgatory was by legalistic distortions and ecclesiastical corruption in late medieval practice, purgatory has gradually come to be seen, through the influence of developments in English Tractarian thought in the nineteenth century, as a state not so much of punishment as of purification, refreshment, and growth. This theological development is adumbrated in some medieval Christian literature, notably the Trattato (Dicchiarazione ) of Catherine of Genoa (1447–1510).
The souls in purgatory have generally been regarded as disembodied (or at least lacking earthly embodiment), yet capable of the peculiar kind of pain that purgatory entails: a pain of waiting and longing. The duration of purgatory is indeterminate; but it is always assumed that some who enter it may be released comparatively soon and certainly that multitudes are to be released long before the Day of Judgment. What then happens to them on their release? Speculative theologians have made various proposals. According to Roman Catholic theology, each soul on its separation from the body is subjected to a "particular" judgment, as distinguished from the final or "general" judgment. In 1336, Pope Benedict XII, in his bull Benedictus Deus, specifically declared that souls, having been subjected to this particular judgment, are admitted at once to the beatific vision, which is heaven, or proceed at once to purgatory to be cleansed and readied for the heavenly state, or are consigned to hell. This teaching does not merely exclude explicitly the primitive Christian view represented by the dormit in pace type of epitaph; it makes nonsense of traditional Roman Catholic piety. For if purgatory be considered in any sense a state of punishment, hell a state of both torment and hopelessness, and heaven one of that joyful activity that comes with the full knowledge of God that is the reward of the righteous, then the traditional prayer for the dead ("Requiescant in pace"; "May they rest in peace") seems to express an inapposite wish for any of the three categories.
That ancient prayer echoes the primitive wish that the souls of the dead may not be inclined, because of their troubled state, to haunt the living but may instead pursue their business in peace and tranquillity and have no such harassing inclination. This primitive wish is, of course, transfigured in Catholic thought and sentiment, where it is illumined by the response "Et lux perpetua luceat eis" ("May perpetual light shine upon them"), expressing a loving concern for the progress of the souls of the dead and the belief that they are advancing toward the fulfillment of their destiny. Nevertheless, at the regular Roman Catholic burial service a beautiful prayer beckons the angels to come forth to meet the deceased and conduct him or her "into the heavenly city, Jerusalem."
For the Hebrew background of the New Testament view, a reliable source is the brief article "Soul" by Norman Porteous in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (New York, 1962). Rudolf Bultmann provides abundant background for an understanding of the New Testament writers' general outlook in his Theology of the New Testament, vol. 1 (New York, 1951). Oscar Cullmann has written an important essay on this topic, which was published in Immortality and Resurrection, edited by Krister Stendahl (New York, 1965). The other essays in this collection, by Harry A. Wolfson, Werner Yaeger, and Henry J. Cadbury, also merit attention. Augustine's view, articulated in his On the Immortality of the Soul, greatly influenced both the medieval schoolmen and the reformers. Saint Thomas and the Problem of the Soul in the Thirteenth Century (Toronto, 1934), by Anton C. Pegis, provides a useful introduction to the view of Thomas Aquinas as set forth in the first volume of his Summa theologiae. Étienne Gilson treats the subject in his study The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy (London, 1936), and John Calvin discusses the origin, immortal nature, and other aspects of the soul in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1960). For the Renaissance view of Pietro Pomponazzi, see Clement C. J. Webb's Studies in the History of Natural Theology (Oxford, 1915).
The soul plays a central role in the various forms of Christian mysticism. The notion of the "fine point" of the soul, a cell remaining sensitive to God despite the fall and consequent corruption of humankind, is a common topic of such literature: For example, see The Living Flame of Love by John of the Cross. For the Salesian tradition, see Henri Bremond's treatment in his Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France (1915–1932), 2d ed. (Paris, 1967–1968), edited by René Taveneaux, especially vol. 7. Whether any form of reincarnationism is reconcilable to Christian faith is specifically considered in two books of mine: Reincarnation in Christianity (Wheaton, Ill., 1978) and Reincarnation as a Christian Hope (London, 1982).
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Chirban, John T., ed. Personhood: Orthodox Christianity and the Connection between Body, Mind, and Soul. Westport, Conn., 1996.
Cary, Phillip. Augustine's Invention of the Inner Self. Oxford and New York, 2000.
Crabbe, M. James C., ed. From Soul to Self. London and New York, 1999.
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