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The New Testament Canon: Definition, Self-authentication, and Closure

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

The New Testament canon, to which much commentary has been written and debated from late first-century throughout church history until present, is of the highest degree of importance. The theme of the New Testament (NT) canon is the recognition, acceptation, and rule (Fr. kanōn, “measuring rod”) of the whole of New Covenant writings.[1] The canon is the written record, the “thus saith the Lord'' to His people. It acts as the anchor from which the entirety of Christian doctrine, faith, and conduct derives its unity. It is dead to any alterations, whether they be from pen, interpretative neglect, or human bias (Deut. 4.2; Pr. 30.6; Rev. 22.18-19). It is the ultimate and absolute standard for the Church’s exercise of “the faith” both within and outside of  the “assembly of God.” There are not sufficient words to express the imperativeness of its nature, history, and the implications assumed from the canon of Scripture. This New Testament canon “...consists of the twenty-seven books which have been recognized as belonging to it since the fourth-century, it is not a value judgment; it is a statement of fact. Individuals or communities may consider that it is too restricted or too comprehensive; but their opinion does not affect the identity of the canon. The canon is not going to be diminished or increased because of what they think or say: it is a literary, historical, and theological datum.” [2]

The canon has fathered all related subject matter, including textual criticism, exegesis, hermeneutics, higher and lower criticism, bibliology, and all other branches of theology. The debate of the canonization of the NT has filled libraries and centers of academia with much argumentation, scrutiny, and critique throughout history. This tension is noted by the apostles John and Paul in their refutations within the Gospel of John, 1-3 John, and the epistle to the Colossians. From the days of the early Gnostics, Docetists, Marcionites, and the Montanists to  the Dark Ages, the antagonism of the Council of Trent, the Age of Enlightenment, Liberalism, and finally to the Postmodern sleight of hand, the NT canon is at the center of onslaught to weaken and disparage the absoluteness of God’s Word. 

The canon is as the city’s high gate and there cannot be placed sufficient gravity on it. Its watchtowers shine the light of God’s knowledge revealed to mortal man and bring forth our epistemology, the Church’s great synods of theological postulates, and thoughtfulness about God, man, creation, and all issues related to the One who has created all things. Without the NT canon, we haven’t the sentient foundations to lay upon the ‘Corner Stone’ or the confidence to continue ‘in the apostles doctrines.’ To add or subtract from God’s words would be to prohibit God’s people from obeying him fully. The canon is the collection of written words from God that bear witness to the historical redemptive development of His  promise to man and realized redemption in Christ. 

The whole theme of the NT canon from its embryonic stages, to its formal written list, and to present has and is facing much criticism from within and outside of the institution of the Church. It is with this in mind that the topic of the NT canon is a critical dilemma and subsequently these following points are to be examined: The definition of the word canon.  The validity of the Bible’s “self-authentication” as proof and criterion of the NT canon. The value of  the argument from ‘silence’ as credible evidence to the pre-70 A.D. closure. The internal biblical evidence which demonstrates the closed NT canon before 70 A.D.  

Defining “Canon”

To begin with the matter of definition, the word canon is rather non-codex and straightforward. It means the list of books contained in the Scripture, i.e., NT canon, refers to the NT books within its bounds. It is the group of books within the sacred writings of the community of faith. This is the list of autographs recognized by the Church as documents of the highest revelation. [3]  Drs. Sanders and McDonald state the meaning of the word “canon” and  “Scripture”, to be almost identical. “The meaning of ‘canon’ is not precisely equal to that of ‘scripture’ even though there is considerable overlap in the definition…both terms refer to recognition of sacredness and authority within a believing community...Canon, while also referring to literature that is normative to a religious community and is employed in establishing its identity and mission, is moreover a fixed standard (or collection of writings) that defines the faith and identity of a particular religious community.” [4]

Canon originally meant “reed” and came to signify a ruler or measuring stick. It is as if  “the Bible is the rule or standard of authority for Christians...the books gained the status of “Holy Scripture,” authoritative standard for faith and practice.” [5] In other words, as W. Burt Pope wrote, “The term canon means a rule or testing rod. The scriptural books are those to which the test has been applied. They are also the canon or testing rule of faith... the books were canonical or canonized before they became the canon or rule of faith.” [6] Furthermore, the word indicates ‘a straight rod’. It is a term metaphorically alluding to the testing rule or the organ of the critical faculty in ethics or a language. It also implies, less  aggressively, to denote that the matter has already been measured and settled. Amphilochius, in an organization of the Scriptures (Cir. 380), first employed the word to mean the rule, or criterion, or standard, to determine  which contents of the Bible must be established. [7]

The history of the canon is as impressive as it is essential. Athanasius the Great, The Confessor, the defender of the faith, Father of Christology, and Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, served the Church for many years. He is noted in church history as coining the term ‘canon’ within ‘The 39th Festal Letter’ in the year 367 A.D. He wrote, “Since, however, we have spoken of the heretics as dead but of ourselves as possessors of the divine writings unto salvation... as Paul has written to the Corinthians [2 Cor. 11:3] -- some guileless persons may be led...(by)...the craftiness of certain men and begin thereafter to pay attention to other books.” He continues, “... I must, without hesitation mention, the scriptures of the New Testament; they are the following: (he names all 27 books, recognized and received, by the 1st-century Church)... These are the springs of salvation, so that he who is thirsty may fully refresh himself with the words contained in them. In them alone is the doctrine of piety proclaimed. Let no one add anything to them or take anything away from them... But for the sake of greater accuracy, I add, being constrained to write, that there are also other books besides these, which have not indeed been put in the canon, (he lists the Apocrypha, The Didache, and The Shepherd). And although beloved, the former are in the canon, and the latter serves as...a fabrication of the heretics.” [8]

The Bible’s Self-Authentication

The question then arises, where was the canon between the date of 367 A.D. and the first-century church? This question is surrounded by doubt and skepticism from without, as well as the ‘rank and file’ church member. The biblical term ‘canon’ is not found directly in the Scriptures.   Likewise, other biblical words are also absent, including but not limited to:  Bible, Holy Trinity, liturgy, discipleship, and phrases such as: ‘God helps those who help themselves,’ ‘this too shall pass,’ and ‘charity begins at home,’.  Although these terms and phrases are not found directly in the Scriptura text, their message or doctrinal postulates are. Let us reframe the previous question of where was the canon prior to 367AD to:  does the Bible teach the idea of the ‘canon’? The idea of the NT canon as  a formal compilation of sacred writings is logically implied.  Which esteems Scripture as possessing a unique, one-of-a-kind authority. Therefore, the answer  is, yes.  It is inferred openly and forcefully as being divine, infallible, and inerrant. The fourth ‘law of logic’ is the ‘principle of inference’ it goes like this; if a=b, and b=c, then, (by inference) c=a. By the scope and instruction from Holy Scripture, one is willfully blinded by declaring that the Bible does not teach and demonstrate the NT canon. 

The principle of ‘self-authentication’ attests to the trustworthiness and reliability of the Scripture as the NT canon. Fallen man is not in a position to judge or determine the value of the NT canon from outside  its strictures. It is beyond the ability and function of man to claim such arrogance in superseding the biblical standard as it has been revealed from God to man. If it is necessary to acquire a source, extra-biblical, to assume jurisprudence, thus to assign a value upon God’s message, then that extra-biblical source has superseded the Word of God. The one judged is subject to the one judging, and thereby allows  the inferior to be  authoritative, ruling over the superior. Fallen man accuses or excuses his sin because he can never escape the voice of conscience placed there innately by God himself. This voice of conscience is the superior judging and ruling over the inferior. This innate voice of God, metaphorically speaking, is the elephant in the room. We all know it is there, yet we say the most foolish things in an effort to justify the things that are not justifiable. Romans 1.18 speaks to this very issue regarding man’s attempt at such foolishness, he “smothers the truth,” “suppresses the truth,” one translation says, “they hide the truth.” The negation of God’s standard is without meaning unless there exists the assumption that one has sinned against the very authority that he is denying. Hence, the excusing or accusing floats to the top of man’s heart and mind, never to escape the Law of God within him. (Ro.  2.15) We see at the very core of man, the intrinsically established print of natural or general revelation. The Bible  is self-authenticating because the Almighty revealed it tantamount with His image. Even though man ‘suppresses the truth,’ he does, nevertheless, possess the very truth he denies! This is confirmed in Scripture itself. Acts 17 reminds us of the pure pagans at Mars Hill, regarding the knowledge they owned as bequeathed from the Almighty even in their state of fallenness and sinfulness. The force of self-authentication, concerning the Scripture, is that man is and will forever be confronted with the living and true God. Within general revelation, the ability lies in nature to speak to men about God through creation. Within special revelation, God himself comes directly and personally talking to men on the bases of friendship and communion from Scripture. [9] Theologian John Owens wrote, “We need no other arguments to prove that God made the world but itself. It carries in it and upon it the infallible tokens of its original...Now, there are greater and more evident impressions of divine excellences left on the written word, from the infinite wisdom of the Author of it, than any that are communicated unto the works of God, of what sort so ever. Hence David, comparing the works of God, as to their instructive efficacy in declaring God and his glory, although he ascribes much unto the works of creation, yet doth he prefer the word incomparably before them, Ps. xix.-3, 7-9”. [10]

Further still, it is proven that general revelation comes by God’s creation.  Therefore, the NT canon is self-authenticating and understood by Scripture itself.  To further prove this we can apply an equation of syllogism by a three-step process: 1) Major Premise: Divine revelation is Self-Attesting. 2) Minor Premise: Scripture is Divine Revelation. 3) Conclusion: Scripture is Self-Attesting. In other words, the MP is based on applying to revelation in a general way what is true of the self-authentication of special revelation. It is presupposed by the fact that special revelation is self-attested because of the nature of the triune-God/Scripture relationship. Romans 1.18-23 explains what the sinner already knows and then is a witness to what is known in his heart and mind of man; it is known because God is merciful, just, and permits one to know this. These verses demonstrate, in written and authoritative genius, what is already understood in the heart of man, though repressed. 1) Nature and Scripture reveal the same God. 2) Both reveal the same accountability for the wicked man. 3) Scripture reveals God’s continued compassion upon the wicked. 4) Finally, the Bible shows how this sinful status of man, under judgment, can be alleviated by Christ’s gift. This is the conclusion that every man consciously or subconsciously understands or yearns for. This is the truth the sinner suppresses and which the sinner already knows.

The Scripture does teach self-authentication within its inspired limits. It  is imperative to the whole construct of the NT canon and cannot be left to logic (though self-authentication is logical), history, man, or the church. Scripture is its own final and sole authority for its source, origin, function, and purpose. There can be no other appeal from men to any external authoritative body. All such appellation is subservient, irrational, and in the final analysis, unsustainable. John Frame wrote, “By his Spirit God sovereignly opens the eyes of his people to the signs of true prophecy, such as true prediction, miracles, and orthodox content (1 John 4.2-3), pressing our minds to see in these an authenticity that goes beyond mere probability, an authenticity that can only be the self-authenticating voice of God... In these lordship attributes, there is no difference between the words of prophets and apostles and the voice of God himself.” [11]

Let us review three points of validation for the internal self-authentication of Scripture  points and their Biblical proof texts:  

  1. The Bible affirms itself to be the ‘living and active Word of God.’ As the Word of God confronts men’s real circumstance, sinful and estranged from the Holy God. It confronts men and their destiny, judgment, and the consequences of their rebellion and it confronts them with the reconciliation, redemption, and regeneration that can only be found in the Truth of Jesus that the Scriptures testify so consistently. (Jer. 23.28, 29; Lu. 16.27-31; Jn. 6.63; Heb. 4.12, 13) 

  2. The Bible affirms its own sufficiency, truthfulness, and faithfulness for primary, continued, and ultimate salvation. The Scripture reveals the character of God as represented throughout the Bible itself. “The words of the Lord are words that are pure...” (Ps. 12.6) “Every word of God can be trusted....” (Pr. 30.5) These and a cache of other texts indicate the truthfulness and faithfulness of every word that God has spoken. Though men lie, and error proceeds from their lips, it is characteristic of God’s speech, even when spoken through sinful man that it is never untrue and speculative, the Bible never affirms the slightest of error. [12] (Deut. 31.11-13; Jn. 20.31; Gal. 1.8, 9; Mk. 16.15, 16)

  3. The Bible affirms the total sufficiency of Scripture from primary faith in Christ, ecclesiastical maturity in obedience, and to the final consummation of all things. Theologian Wayne Grudem wrote, “The sufficiency of Scripture means that Scripture contained all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly.” [13]  (Ps. 119.1; 2Tim. 3.15-17; Jam. 1.18; 1Pe. 1.23) Scripture is then self-authenticating, and the best and highest form of testimony is a demonstration to boldly preach and teach it under the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Charles Spurgeon was asked how he defended the Scriptures. He responded, “I don’t believe I need to defend the Scripture. Scripture is like a lion; if we let it out of its cage, it will defend itself well enough.” [14]


The closure of the canon is dealt with in many ways, and from different points of view. However, there seems to be only one way to calculate the closure of the canon and maintain the cogency and consistency needed which  only the internal evidence from the canon source itself can demonstrate. The NT canon is a list of books, 27 in all (4-Gospels, 1-Historical, 14-Pauline Epistles, 7-Catholic/Universal Epistles, and 1-Apocalyptic Epistle) is closed and was terminated in its completion toward the end of the first-century; prior to the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the burning of Jerusalem by Roman Generals Titus and Vespasian; 66-70 A.D. Today, God speaks to His own, in Christ, through the completed New and Old Testaments. (Deut 13.11-13; Lk. 24.44-45; Jn. 5.39; Heb. 1.1-2; 10.7; Rev. 22.18, 19) Hence, the ongoing or continuum of ‘revelation,’ (God’s revealed written Word) God speaking as He did through the prophets of the OT and the Apostles of the NT, in the church today and forever, is false and tenuous. Divine revelation has ceased, however, this is not to be confused with divine illumination That is to say, as the Holy Spirit is opening our minds and hearts to His dealings, testifying to the reality of the risen Christ, and attesting to orthodoxy within scriptural restraints as an ongoing continuum work of God in His people. This is not to give sanction and permission to deal with Scripture that leads to conjecture and spurious conclusions.

The internal evidence is our principal import and concern at present. External evidence is corroborating and necessary for support in confirming. However, for the primary witness, one must be concerned with the internal proofs to separate and determine the value and validity of an issue or theme at hand. Dr. Stonehouse writes, “… It is difficult indeed to exaggerate the value of the knowledge gained from tradition; without it, we should be in a position of incomparably deeper ignorance than we now are. Nevertheless, the testimony of tradition cannot rise above the level of tradition whereas the self-witness of the Gospels and other writings in Scripture, in the very nature of the case, is of a qualitatively different kind.the qualitative nature of this difference is underscored when, as in the case of the Gospels, we are dealing with the witness of Scripture itself.” [15]

Silence is golden.’ It is also a primary witness; hence, there must be given serious thought and contemplation to the ‘argument from silence.’ The famous detective Sherlock Holmes alludes to this evidence seeking the guilty party for a murder that had been committed. As the certitude of this evidence, he referenced the fact that the deceased’s dog did not bark. Realizing this fact, of unmovable stature, Holmes draws this line of evidence that the guilty one must have been a friend of the victim, thus a friend of the dog; hence, the “argument from silence” stands. To the degree, that at no time, within literary antiquity, nor from each of the twenty-seven books of the NT, there has risen no voice of recognition to the most weighty, catastrophic disaster of its kind to date; the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 70 A.D. We must indulge ourselves, to reminisce to the point of infraction of this historical fulcrum when institutional Judaism was front and foremost on the minds of all first-century Jews and the majority of first-century Christians, for different reasons of course. Institutional Judaism was wholly couched upon and fully invested in the Temple, OT sacrifices, and priestly liturgical worship, upon which its full and entire national existence rested. From this straightforward posture, it is highly improbable that any of the NT books find their content penned to papyrus after this historical and horrible event.  Theologian John A. T. Robinson wrote, “ this point I began to ask myself just why any of the books of the New Testament needed to be put after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D...was it not strange that this cataclysmic event was never once mentioned or apparently hinted at? And what about those predictions of it in the gospels-were they really the prophecies after the event that our critical education had taught us to believe?” [16] Dr. James Moffatt wrote, “We should expect ...that an event like the fall of Jerusalem would have dented some of the literature of the primitive church...As a matter of fact, the catastrophe is practically ignored in the extant Christian literature of the first century.” [17] Theologian C. F. D. Moule wrote, “It is hard to believe that a Judaistic type of Christianity which had itself been closely involved in the cataclysm of the years leading up to A.D. 70 would not have shown the scars - or, alternatively, would not have made capital out of this signal evidence that they, and not non-Christian Judaism, were the true Israel. But in fact, our traditions are silent.” [18]

The Closure of Canon

Regarding the internal NT biblical evidence, it also demonstrates the closure of the NT canon as the evidence as has already been presented. The three biblical texts are sure and their historical commentary confirms the completed canon, that the Scriptures are closed, and that divine revelation has ceased at or before 70 A.D. 

Jude 1.3 states, “...exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” Jude writes in a manner that justifies, clearly, a past reference to the closed NT canon. The following two phrases will demonstrate the force of this postulate: 1) The phrase ‘the faith’ was undoubtedly something to fight for. To fight, or argue for this ideal must have been given, understood, and received as validated. Dr. Reasoner writes, “Jude originally intended to write about the faith or the Gospel, which the church...held in common. It was handed down (paradidomai) once for all from the apostles... Wesley described the faith as “all the fundamental truths.” [19]  Theologian Kistemaker writes concerning ‘the faith,’ “What is this faith Jude mentions? In view of the context, we understand the word faith to mean the body of Christian beliefs. It is the gospel the apostles proclaimed and therefore is equivalent to “the apostles teaching (Acts 2:42).” [20] Theologian Mounce wrote, “Pisits (Greek=faith) can also refer to Christian doctrine or collection of beliefs (Jude 3).” [21]  2) The phrase ‘which was once’ in the Greek hapax, meaning: used of what is so done as to be of perpetual validity and never need repetition, once for all. [22] 

2 Timothy 1.14 states, “Protect the truth that you were given...” “Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you...” This is most unambiguous; this fact, the ‘truth’ and ‘good deposit’ was real and viable. Clearly, this “deposit” was identifiable to Timothy or else Paul’s command would hold no judgment value. Furthermore, this deposit, in order to guard it, could not have been related to the traditions of nebulous oral tone. Written documents can be compared to forgeries, whereas oral traditions, by their very nature, are open to endless differing accounts and interpretations. Since the apostles were taught ‘all things’ (Jn 14.26), in turn, they passed on these ‘foundational truths’ from the ‘Corner Stone’ (Christ) during this unique, once-in-time, apostolic period, pre-70 A.D. (Eph. 4.20). Dr. John Stott wrote, “Guard the truth that has been entrusted to you’. Here Paul refers to the gospel, the apostolic faith...the Greek expression being used in the Gospels... It is what Paul had previously called ‘the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20.27)” [23]

Daniel 9.24 states, “...and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy.” The culmination of this prophecy is quite evident within the first-century. Verses 25-27 make it clear that when the seventy-week period begins, it will continue without breach of continuity until the seventy-weeks are terminated or completed. Christ’s death and resurrection made an end of the sins of His people. He accomplished reconciliation for His people. Christ’s people have experienced everlasting righteousness because we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness, which is eternal. The destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. is clearly within the time restraints of the seventy-weeks and is demonstrated by verse twenty-six. The phrase “and to seal up the vision and prophecy” plainly sets forth the end of the NT canon of Scripture. Theologian E. J. Young makes the following observations concerning the words’ vision’ and ‘prophecy,’ Vision was a technical name for revelation given to the OT prophets (cf. Isa, 1:1, Amos 1:1, etc.) The prophet was the one through whom this vision was revealed to the people. The two words, vision, and prophet, therefore, serve to designate the prophetic revelation of the OT period.... When Christ came, there was no further need of prophetic revelation in the OT sense.” [24] Since there is no essential difference between Old and New Testament revelation, and the origin of the revelation is indistinguishable; thus, there is no reason to doubt that all new revelation stopped in the first century. Dr. Adam Clarke wrote regarding the same phrase commented by Dr. Young, “To put an end to the necessity of any farther revelations, by completing the canon of Scriptures and fulfilling the prophecies which related to his person, sacrifice, and the glory that should follow.” [25]

To this end the definition stands clear, indicating the term canon as defined by the 27 list of books of formal pronouncement stated in the 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius. These books with the 39 Old Testament books conclude with the utmost certainty and conclusively to be Holy Scripture. The Bible is the highest order of literary register and finds no comparison in content, historical, philosophical, or ethical position. It is the book of all books designed to bring the infiniteness of the Eternal God to His finite creature, without obscurity or ambiguity. The willful heart can then acknowledge and receive newness of spirit and life, upon which, he might find communion with the Father. The ‘self-authentication’ is axiomatic through the Law of God as burned upon the heart of man and scribed upon the papyrus of the first-century, that he might know and humble himself before His lordship. By its standard, there is no other course or criterion with which man may judge the Scriptures or anything else. Closeness to the literary penned date makes for a more certain attestation of its work to corroborate a pre-70 A.D. date without any normal delay the preciseness and accuracy of its writ, giving man every benefit to acquire certainty of thought and origin. One cannot but marvel at the NT canon’s whole character as a literary genius, but it is much more than human prowess and erudition; it is the Holy Bible superintended by the Holy Spirit. It is initiated beyond time but flowed through and transcendently so, through the hand of men, inspired, inerrant, authoritative, universal, and relevant.


1Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, The Canon Debate, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), 11. 

2Bruce, F. F., The Canon of Scripture, (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 250. 

3Hanson, R. P. C., Origen’s Doctrine of Tradition, (London, England, 1954), 93.

4Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, The Canon Debate, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), 11.

5Butler, Trent C., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, (Nashville, TN.: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 200. 

6Pope, William Burt, A Compendium of Christian Theology: Being Analytical Outlines of a Course of Theological Study Vol. 1, (New York, NY.: Hunt & Eaton Publishers, 1889), 59, 193.

7 Ibid .,193.

8Davis, Glenn, The Development of the Canon of the New Testament,, Internet, 2010.

9Packer, J. I., Knowing God, (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 23. 

10Waldron, Samuel, The Canon of Scripture, Article, 2015.

11Frame, John, A Theology of Lordship: The Doctrine of the Word of God, Phillipsburg, NJ.: P&R Publishing, 2010), 100.

12Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan Publishing, 1994) 90.

13Ibid., 127.

14Waldron, Samuel, The Canon of Scripture, Article, 2015.

15Gentry, Kenneth L., Before Jerusalem Fell, (Fountain Inn, SC.: Victorious Hope Publishing, 1998), 114. 

16Robinson, John A. T., Redating the New Testament, (Philadelphia, PA.: The Westminster Press, 1976), 10, 14.

17Ibid., 127.14.

18Ibid., 127.14.

19Reasoner, Vic, John & Jude: A Fundamental Wesleyan Commentary, Evansville, IN.: FWP Wesleyan Publishers, 2016. 

20Kettler, Jack, The Closing of the Canon of Scripture, Internet article, 2011.

21Mounce, William D., Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New (Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), 233. 

22Blue Letter, Bible, Strongs Lexical Concordance,, Internet, 2018.

23Stott, John R. W., The Message of 2 Timothy: The Bible Speaks Today, (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 43.

24Kettler, Jack, The Closing of the Canon of Scripture, Internet article, 2011.

25Clarke, Adam, Clarke’s Commentary Vol. 4, (Nashville, TN.: Abingdon Press, 1956), 602.

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