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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Greek Testament
Revelation 4

 

 

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Verse 1

Revelation 4:1. μετὰἰδού introducing as usual in an independent clause (instead of a simple accus., Vit. ii. 8 f., 31, 173, 174, to which he reverts in Revelation 4:4) some fresh and weighty revelation; lesser phases are heralded by the simpler καὶ εἶδον. The phrase indicates a pause, which of course may have covered days as well as hours in the original experience of the seer, if we assume that his visions came in the order in which they are recorded. He is no longer in the island but up at the gates of heaven. In his trance, a heavenly voice comes after he has seen—not heaven opened (the usual apocalyptic and ecstatic symbol, e.g. Acts 10:11 = a vision, Revelation 11:5, Ezekiel 1:1, Matthew 3:16, Ap. Bar. xxii. 1) but—a door set open (ready, opened) in the vault of the mysterious upper world which formed God’s house. Then follows the rapture (which in Revelation 1:9 precedes the voice). The whole vision is composed by a man familiar with O.T. prophecy, in Semitic style: short clauses linked by the monotonous καί, with little or no attempt made at elaboration of any kind. Traits from the theophany of God as a monarch, surrounded by a triple circle (cf. the triple circle surrounding Ahuramazda), are blended with traits drawn from the theophany in nature. The ordinary Jewish conception (Gfrŏrer, i. 365 f.) tended to regard God as the royal priest, to whom angels rendered ceaseless levitical praise and service (cf. Revelation 4-5), or as a glorified rabbi whose angels act as interpreters of the heavenly mysteries for man (cf. Revelation 10 and apocalyptic literature in general with its angelic cicerones). In the seven heavens of Chagiga, 12b, the third is the place where “the millstones grind manna for the righteous” (Psalms 78:23-24, cf. Revelation 2:17), whilst in the fourth are the heavenly Jerusalem (cf. Revelation 21:10) and the temple (Revelation 15:5 f.) and the altar (Revelation 8:3 f.) where the great prince Michael offers an offering, but in the fifth the ministering angels, who sing God’s praise by night, are silent by day to let Israel’s adoration rise to the Most High (see on Revelation 4:8). ἀνάβα ὧδε (cf. the common phrase, ἀναβαίνειν εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν, of penetration into heavenly mysteries), from Exodus 19:16; Exodus 19:24, φωνὴ τῆς σάλπιγγος ἤχει μέγαεἶπεν δὲ αὐτῷ κύριοςἀνάβηθι. As in the O.T. the revelation is vouchsafed spontaneously, whereas in Iranian theology (e.g., in the Vendidàd) “it is the wish of man, not the will of God, that is the first cause of the revelation” (Darmesteter, S. B. E. iv. p. lxxxv.). The seer does not enter the door till he is called; to know the divine will is the outcome of revelation, not of inquiry or speculative curiosity (similar idea in 1 Corinthians 2:9 f.). Enoch (xiv. 9 f.) also does not enter the palace of God with its fire-encircled walls, but sees through the open portals “a high throne, καὶ τὸ εἶδος αὐτοῦ ὡσεὶ κρυστάλλινονκαὶ ὄρος χερουβίν … and from underneath the great throne came streams of flaming fire so that I could not look thereon. And the great Glory sat thereon and his raiment shone more brightly than the sun and was whiter than any snow.” He is finally called by God to approach but not to enter. Cf. Ap. Bar. li. 11, Test. Levi. v., “and the angel opened unto me the gates of heaven, and I saw the holy One, the Most High, seated on the throne”.


Verse 2

Revelation 4:2. A fresh wave of ecstasy catches up the seer. εὐθέωςπνεύματι, repeating Revelation 1:10, not because the author had forgotten his previous statement, and still less because a new source begins here (Vischer), but simply because every successive phase of this Spirit-consciousness, every new access of ecstasy, was considered to be the result of a fresh inspiration; so the O.T. prophets (e.g., Ezekiel 11:1 καὶ ἀνέλαβέν με πνεῦμα κ. τ. λ., followed by Ezekiel 11:5 καὶ ἔπεσεν ἐπʼ ἐμὲ πνεῦμα, Ezekiel 2:2 and Ezekiel 3:24; cf. Enoch xiv. 9 καὶ ἄνεμοι ἐν τῇ ὁράσει μουεἰσήνεγκάν με εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν followed by ver 14 ἐθεώρουν ἐν τ. . μ. καὶ ἰδοὺ κ. τ. λ., lxxi. 1 and 5, etc.). The primitive Christian conception of the Spirit was that of a sudden and repeated transport rather than a continuous experience (Acts 4:8; Acts 4:31, etc.), particularly in the region of ecstasy. The royal presence is depicted in this theophany by means of similes and metaphors (partly rabbinic) which originally were suggested in part by the marvellous atmospheric colouring of an Eastern sky during storm or sunset; several had been for long traditional and fanciful modes of expressing the divine transcendence (e.g., En. xiv. 18 f. the divine glory like crystal, etc.) which dominates the Apocalypse. God is a silent, enthroned (cf. 1 Kings 22:19 etc.), eternal Figure, hidden by the very excess of light, keeping ward and watch over his people, but never directly interfering in their affairs till the judgment, when mankind appears before his throne for doom and recompense. This reluctance to name or describe God, so characteristic of the later Judaism, was allied to the feeling which mediated his action upon the world through angels or through his Christ (see on Revelation 1:1 and Revelation 15:8). For the tendency to describe God and heaven in priestly terms, cf. Gfrörer, i. 276 f. The whole of the present passage is illustrated by Pirke Elieser, iv.: “majestas sancti benedicti est in medio quattuor classium angelicarum. Ipse insidet throno excelso eleuatus, atque solium eius sublime suspensum est sursum in aere, figura autem gloriae eius est sicut color Chasonal, juxta uerba prophetiae (Ezekiel 1:27) … atque oculi per totum orbem discurrunt. Sagittae eius sunt ignis et grando; a dextra eius uita est, a sinistramors, sceptrum ignitum in manu eius. Expansum est ante eum uelum, et septem angeli qui prius creati sunt, famulantur ei ante uelum … infra thronum gloriae eius est sicuti lapis sapphiri.”


Verse 3

Revelation 4:3. The sources of the general conception lie far back in passages like Isaiah 6:1 f., Ezekiel 1:26 f., Daniel 7:9 f., Enoch xxxix., xl., xlvi., mediated by rabbinical interpretations. But it should be noted that in the palace-temple of Hatra, the Parthian capital, one well-known frieze contained a row of figures including the griffin, the eagle, the human face, the head of an ox, and an emblem on the cornice apparently representing the sun. With a sublime restraint, the author leaves the royal presence undefined, though he is more definite and explicit on the whole than (say) Ezekiel. The latter’s advance in this respect upon his predecessors was explained by the rabbis (cf. Streane’s Chagiga, p. 73) as a needful counteractive to the Jewish belief that visions were impossible outside Canaan, and as a help to men of the captivity who needed “special details to support them in their trials” (cf. above, Revelation 1:9 f.). The σάρδιον, a flesh-coloures, semi-transparent, often golden or ruddy gem, answers to our red jasper or cornelian, so-called perhaps from Sardis, whence the stone was originally exported, ὅμοιος, adj. only here with two terminations. “The striking simile ὅμ. ὁρ. λ. . κ. σ. recalls the portrait statues of Roman emperors and others, in which the raiment is worked out in hard-coloures stones—a fashion introduced in the last years of the republic from Ptolemaic Egypt” (Myres, E. Bi., 4812).— ἶρις. The nimbus or halo round the throne is green, σμ. (cf. Deissm. 267) being malachite or more probably an emerald (Revelation 21:19), to which the ancients attributed a talismanic power of warding off evil spirits. “Thou hast made heaven and earth bright with thy rays of pure emerald light” (hymn to Ra, E. B. D. 8). The. rabbis (Chagiga, 16 a) discouraged any study of the rainbow, as it symbolised the glory of God. As the symbol of God’s covenant, it may be here a foil to the forbidding awe of Revelation 4:5 a (which develops 3 a, as 5 b develops 3b–4); “Deus in judiciis semper meminit foederis sui” (Grotius.) But, like the parabolic details of Jesus, these traits are mainly descriptive. The association of jasper, sardius, and emerald is a genuinely Hellenic touch: cf. Phaedo, 110, where Plato describes the real earth under the heavens of paradise as a place where in perfection lie such things as exist here but in fragmentary beauty—for example, the pebbles esteemed here, σάρδιά τε καὶ ἰάσπιδας καὶ σμαράγδους. Flinders Petrie, taking σμ. as rock-crystal, argues that the rainbow here is of the prismatic colour which a hexagonal prism of that colourless stone would throw (Hastings, D. B. iv. 620).


Verse 4

Revelation 4:4. This verse breaks the continuous description of 3 and 5; it is evidently an original touch of the writer introduced into the more or less traditional scenery of the eternal court where “all the sanctities of heaven stood thick as stars” (cf. Revelation 5:11). The conception of twenty-four πρεσβύτεροι royally (Revelation 1:6) enthroned as divine assessors, with all the insignia of state, reaches back in part to a post-exilic apocalypse (Isaiah 24:23, βασιλεύσει κύριος ἐν σιὼν καὶ εἰς ἱερουσαλὴμ καὶ ἐνώπιον τῶν πρεσβυτέρων δοξασθήσεται), in part to the historic gerousia. But their attire (golden crowns, white robes) and functions are royal rather than judicial or sacerdotal. They are heavenly beings, angelic figures corresponding to the θρόνοι of Colossians 1:16 (cf. Isaiah 63:9 οὐ πρεσβὺς οὐδὲ ἄγγελος). The significance of the doubled 12 has been found in the twelve patriarchs or tribes + the twelve apostles (Andr., Areth., Vict., Alford, Weiss, etc.), in Jewish and Gentile Christianity (Bleek, de Wette, Weizsäcker, Swete), or in the twenty-four classes of the post-exilic priests with their “elders” (Schürer, H. J. P. i. 216 f., so from Vitringa to Ewald, Hilg., Renan, Spitta, Wellh., Erbes, Briggs). But the notion of the church as a fusion or combination of the old and the new covenants is alien to primitive Christianity, and the “elders’ are not the ideal or celestial representatives of the church at all. They pertain to the heavenly court, as in the traditional mise-en-scène of the later Judaism, which had appropriated this and other imaginative suggestions of the heavenly court (Schrader,3 pp. 454 f.), or, judicial council from the Babylonian, astro-theology, where μετὰ τὸν ζῳδιακὸν κύκλον were ranged four-and-twenty stars, half to the north, and half to the south, of which the visible are reckoned as belonging to the living, the invisible to the dead, οὓς δικαστὰς τῶν ὅλων προσαγορεύουσιν (Diod. Sic. 2:31, quoted by Gunkel in S. C. 302–308, who rightly finds in the same soil roots of other symbols in this passage, such as the four ζῷα and the seven λαμπάδες). In Slav. En. iv. 1. immediately after “the very great sea” in the first heaven is mentioned (cf. Revelation 4:6), Enoch is shown “the elders and the rulers of the orders of the stars;” so in Judicium Petri, εἴκοσι γὰρ καὶ τέσσαρές εἰσι πρεσβύτεροι, twelve on the right hand of God and twelve on the left, as in Acta Perpet. The twenty-four star-deities of the Babylonian heaven had thus become adoring and subordinate angelic beings (cf. ἡμῶν, Revelation 4:11) in the apocalyptic world of the later Judaism, and our author retains this Oriental trait, together with the seven torches, the halo, etc., in order to body forth poetically his conception of the divine majesty (so, after Gunkel, Jeremias, and Bousset, Bruston, J. Weiss, Scott, Forbes, Porter). A partial anticipation of this feature, as well as of some others, in the Apocalypse occurs not only in the “sacred council” of Doushara, the Nabatean deity (cf. Cook’s North Semit. Inscr., pp. 221 f., 443 f.), but in Egyptian mythology, as, e.g., in the following inscription from the tomb of Unas (5th dynasty, 3500 B.C.) “His place is at the side of God, in the most holy place; he himself becomes divine (neter), and an angel of God; he himself is triumphant. He sits on the great throne by the side of God [Revelation 3:21]. He is clothed with the finest raiment of those who sit on the throne of living right and truth. He hungers not, nor thirsts, nor is sad, for he eats daily the bread of Ra, and drinks what He drinks daily, and his bread also is that which is spoken of by Seb, and that which comes forth from the mouth of the gods [Revelation 7:16-17; Revelation 21:4]. Not only does he eat and drink of their food, but he wears the apparel they wear—the white linen and sandals, and he is clothed in white … and these great and never-failing gods give unto him of the Tree of Life [Revelation 2:7] of which they themselves do eat, that he likewise may live.”


Verse 5

Revelation 4:5. The impression of awe is heightened by traits from the primitive Semitic theophany which, especially in judgment, was commonly associated with a thunderstorm ( φωναί = the shrieks and roaring blasts of the storm). Thunder in the Apocalypse is either a sort of chorus in praise of God (as here) or punitive (e.g., Revelation 16:18); in Enoch lix. 1 the seer beholds the secrets of the thunder, “how it ministers unto well-being and blessing, or serves for a curse before the Lord of Spirits”. For the “torches of fire” (seven being a sacred number = collective and manifold power, Jastrow 265, Trench 62–70) cf. Ezekiel 1:13 ὡς ὄψις λαμπάδων συστρεφομένων ἀναμέσον τῶν ζῴων καὶ φέγγος τοῦ πυρὸς καὶ ἐκ τοῦ πυρὸς ἐξεπορεύετο ἀστραπή, and Apoc. Bar. xxi. 6, where “holy living creatures, without number, of flame and fire” surround the throne. Fulness, intensity, energy, are implied in the figure, which reflects the traditional association (in the primitive mind) of fire and flame with the divinity, and especially with the divine purity or holiness of which they were regarded as an outward expression. There may be an allusion to the ignes aeterni or sempiterni of Roman mythology, an equivalent for the heavenly bodies; but Jewish eschatology had for over two centuries been familiar with the seven watchers of the heavenly court and their counterparts in Persian and Babylonian mythology. The combination of fire and crystal (Revelation 4:6, see also Revelation 15:2) goes back originally to Exodus 24:9-10; Exodus 24:17, and Ezekiel 1:22; Ezekiel 1:27, mediated by passages like En. xiv. 9, 17 f. , 21–23; while the groundwork of the symbol answers to the seven Persian councillors (Ezra 7:14, Esther 1:14) who formed the immediate circle of the monarch, a counterpart of the divine Amshaspands, as well as to the sacred fire of Ormuzd, which (on Zoroastrian principles) was to be kept constantly burning. Seven burning altars, evidently representing a planetary symbolism, also occur in the cult of Mithra, while in the imageless temple of Melcarth at Gades fires always burned upon the altar, tended by whiterobed priests.—5 c reads like an editorial comment or a liturgical gloss; the πρεσβύτεροι, e.g., are undefined.


Verse 6

Revelation 4:6. For a sea in heaven, cf. above (on Revelation 4:4). In Test. Patr. Levi. 2 the sea lies within the second (first) heaven ὕδωρ κρεμάμενον ἀνάμεσον τούτου κἀκείνου, and in the Egyptian paradise the triumphant soul goes to “the great lake in the Fields of Peace,” where the gods dwell. The description, “a sea of glass, like crystal” (i.e., transparent, ancient glass being coarse and often semi-opaque, and ὕαλος being primarily = transparent, not vitreous) borrowed partly from archaic tradition (coloured by Egyptian and Assyrian ideas), is intended to portray the ether, clear and calm, shimmering and motionless. Rabbinic fancy compared the shining floor of the temple to crystal, and the hot eastern sky is likened (in Job 37:18) to a molten mirror, dry and burnished. Heaven is a sort of glorified temple (1 Kings 7:23, the sea in the Solomonic temple being copied from the oblong or round tank which represented the ocean at every Babylonian temple, while the earth was symbolised by the adjoining zikkurat), and the crystal firmament is a sort of sea. In Slav. En. iii. 1–3 the seer observes, in the first heaven, the ether, and then “a very great sea, greater than the earthly sea”. καὶ ἐν μέσῳ, κ. τ. λ.: “and in the middle (of each side) of the throne and (consequently) round about the throne,” the four חַיּוֹת of Ezekiel 1:5; Ezekiel 1:18 (cf. Apoc. Bar. li. 11). γέμοντα κ. τ. λ., a bizarre but archaic symbol for completeness of life and intelligence rather than for Argus-like vigilance. The four angels of the presence in En. xl. 2 move out, like Milton’s seven (Par. Lost, 3:647 f.), on various errands (lxxi. 9, cf. lxxxviii. 2, 3). The ζῷα of John are stationary, except in Revelation 15:7, where the context (cf. Revelation 6:6) might suggest that the seer took them to represent creation or the forces of the natural world (cf. the rabbinic dictum: quattuor sunt qui principatum in hoc mundo tenent, inter creaturas homo, inter aues aquilo, inter pecora bos, inter bestias leo). Note also that when they worship (Revelation 4:9), the πρεσβύτεροι acknowledge God’s creative glory (Revelation 4:11), and that the O.T. cherubim are associated with the phenomena of the storm-cloud. The seer does not define them, however, and they may be, like the πρεσβύτεροι, a traditional and poetical trait of the heavenly court.— τέσσερα, cf. Slav. En. xxx. 13, 14. The posture of the ζῷα may be visualised from a comparison of the Alhambra Court of the Lions.


Verse 7

Revelation 4:7. μόσχῳ, “an ox or steer” (as LXX). The four animals are freely compounded out of the classical figures of Ezekiel’s cherubim and the seraphim in Isaiah 6; the latter supply the six wings apiece. This function of ceaseless praise (Revelation 4:8-9) is taken from Enoch lxi. 10 f., where the cherubim and seraphim are also associated but not identified with the angelic host (though in 40. the cherubim are equivalent to the four archangels); for a possible Babylonian astral background, cf. Zimmern in Schrader,3 626–632, and Clemen’s Religionsgeschichtliche Erklärung des N. T. (1909), pp. 74 f. Behind them lie the signs of the zodiac (the bull, the archer, the lion and the eagle, as a constellation of the North; so, e.g., Gunkel, Bruston, etc.). The analogous figures of the four funerary genii before the Egyptian throne represent the four points of the compass.


Verse 8

Revelation 4:8. A description of the sounds and songs of heaven follows the picture of its sights.— γέμουσιν, either with τὰ τ. ζ. ( ἔχων for once a real participle) or an asyndeton (if ἔχων here, as elsewhere in the Apocalypse, must be supplied with a copula). κυκλ. κ. . = “round their bodies and on the inside” (i.e., underneath their wings). For the ceaseless praise, which resembles that of Nin-ib, the Assyrian deity, cf. on Revelation 4:7 and Revelation 4:11, also Enoch xxxix. 12 (the trisagion sung by the sleepless ones, i.e., angels), Slav, En. 17, and Test. Levi 3 (where endless praise is the function of denizens in the fourth heaven). The first line of the hymn is Isaianic, the second ( ἦν κ. τ. λ.) is characteristic of the Apocalypse. In En. xli. 7 the sun and moon in their orbits “give thanks and praise and rest not; for to them their thanksgiving is rest”. In the Apocalypse, however, the phenomena of nature are generally the objects or the scourges of the divine wrath. The precedence of ἦν over ὤν may be due to the emphasis of the context upon (Revelation 4:11) the definite creative action of God. Since the πρεσβύτεροι worship God as the eternal (Revelation 4:10), while the ζῷα acknowledge him as the ἅγιος, the latter epithet probably retains its O.T. sense, i.e., absolute life and majestic power (Revelation 16:5). The trisagion occurs in the Babylonian recension (Revelation 4:3.) of the Shmone-Esreh, among the daily prayers of the Jewish community. See further Encycl. Rel. and Ethics, i. 117, 118.


Verse 9

Revelation 4:9. The frequentative meaning of δώσουσι comes from the sense rather than from the grammar of the passage. “Whenever,” etc. (i.e., throughout the course of this book, Revelation 5:8 f., Revelation 11:16 f., Revelation 19:4) is “a sort of stage-direction” (Simcox). It would be harsh to take the words as a proleptic allusion to the single occurrence at Revelation 11:15 f. (J. Weiss). To give or ascribe δόξα to God is reverently to acknowledge his supreme authority, either spontaneously and gladly (as here and Revelation 19:7, where “honour” becomes almost “praise”) or under stress of punishment (Revelation 11:13, Revelation 14:7, Revelation 16:9) and fear of judgment. The addition of τιμή in doxologies amplifies the idea, by slightly emphasising the expression of that veneration and awe felt inwardly by those who recognise his δόξα. To fear God or to be his servants is thus equivalent upon the part of men to an attitude of pious submission and homage. To “give thanks” is hardly co-ordinate with δ. κ. τ., but follows from it as a corollary (cf. Psalms 96-98). Such worship is the due of the living God (Revelation 7:2, Revelation 10:6, Revelation 15:7), whereas to eat “meat sacrificed to idols is to worship dead gods” (Did. vi. 3, cf. Revelation 2:14; Revelation 2:20). The Apocalypse, however, never dwells on the danger of idolatry within the Christian church; its attention is almost absorbed by the supreme idolatry of the Emperor, which is silently contrasted in this and in other passages with the genuine Imperial worship of the Christian church. “He who sits on the throne” (a title of Osiris in E. B. D.) is the only true recipient of worship. Cf. the hymn to “Ra when he riseth”: “Those who are in thy following sing unto thee with joy and bow down their foreheads to the earth when they meet thee, thou lord of heaven and earth, thou king of Right and Truth, thou creator of eternity”.


Verse 10

Revelation 4:10. To cast a crown before the throne was a token that the wearer disclaimed independence; an Oriental (Parthian) token of respect for royalty (reff.). Cf. Spenser’s Hymne of Heavenly Beautie (141–154) and the pretty fancy in Slav. En. xiv. 2 where the sun’s crown is taken from him as he passes through the fourth heaven (before God) and given to God.


Verse 11

Revelation 4:11. An implicit refutation of the dualistic idea, developed by Cerinthus, the traditional opponent of John in Asia Minor, that creation was the work of some angel or power separate from God (Iren. i. 26, iv. 32, Hippol. Haer. vii. 33, x. 1). The enthusiastic assent of the πρεσβύτεροι to the adoration of the Creator is expressed in word as well as in action. σύ emphatic = the usual apocalyptic (R.J., 295, 296) emphasis on creation as a proof of God’s power in providence and claims on mankind (e.g. 4 Ezra 3:4, “thou didst fashion the earth, and that thyself alone”). That God the redeemer is God the creator, forms one of the O.T. ideas which acquire special weight in the Apocalypse. Despite the contradictions of experience and the apparent triumph of Satan, the apocalypses of the age never gave way to dualism. Their firm hope was that the world, ideally God’s, would become actually his when messiah’s work was done; hence, as here, the assertion of his complete power over nature and nations. “Because thou didst will it ( σύ, σου, emphatic) they existed and were created” (act and process of creation). As an answer to polytheism this cardinal belief in God the creator came presently to the front in the second century creeds and apologies. But the idea here is different alike from contemporary Jewish and from subsequent Christian speculation, the former holding that creation was for the sake of Israel (cf. 4 Esd. 6:55, 7:11, 9:13, Apoc. Bar. xiv. 18, 19, xv. 7, Ass. Mos. i. 12, etc., a favourite rabbinic belief), the latter convinced that it was for the sake of the Christian church (cf. Herm. Vis. ii. 4). Nor is there any evident trace of the finer idea (En. iii–v., Clem. Rom. xx., etc.) which contrasted the irregularities and impiety of men with the order and obedience of the universe. The conception of the holy ones rendering ceaseless praise in heaven would be familiar to early Christians in touch with Hellenic ideas and associations; e.g., Hekataeus of Abdera, in his sketch of the ideal pious folk, compares them to the priests of Apollo, διὰ τὸ τὸν θεὸν τοῦτον καθʼ ἡμέραν ὑπʼ αὐτῶν ὑμνεῖσθαι μετʼ ᾠδῆς συνεχῶς (Dieterich 36 f., cf. Apoc. Pet. 19–20). Test. Levi 3 ἐν δὲ τῷ μετʼ αὐτόν εἰσι θρόνοι κ. ἐξουσίαι ἐν ὕμνοι ἀεὶ τῷ θεῷ προσφέρονται.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicol, W. Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Revelation 4:4". The Expositor's Greek Testament. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/egt/revelation-4.html. 1897-1910.

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Wednesday, October 16th, 2019
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