The God Who Wasn't There: an Analysis

Section 3: Paul and Early Christianity    


By: GakuseiDon

Last Updated: Feb 2006

In June 2005, Brian Flemming released a documentary DVD on the Jesus Myth, which is the idea that there is no historical person at the core of Christianity. Flemming proposes that Christ was in fact a being that died and resurrected on a mythical plane, sharing similarities with other saviour godmen of the day, like Mithras, Dionysus and Osiris. 


This is Section 3 of my analysis of the information Flemming provides in his documentary. I examine his comments relating to Paul and early Christianity, and conclude that he fails to place Paul and early Christian writers in the context of period in which they wrote. I strongly urge anyone interested in this topic to follow up on some of these points for themselves, rather than take my word or Flemming's word for anything. 


Section 1: Misinformation: Errors in the movie


Section 2: Justin Martyr: What does he REALLY say?


Section 3: Paul and early Christianity

3.1 Introduction

3.2 'People forgot, then remembered again'

3.3 Paul's lack of references to historical events

3.4 Paul, the Gospel Jesus and Hebrew Scriptures

3.5 How did Paul view Jesus?

3.6 Evidence for a historical Jesus: some secular comments

3.7 Conclusion

Note 1: Fundy atheists

Section 4: Jesus Myth overview: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly




When I refer to information in the documentary, I will give a time reference for when that information is presented on the screen in square brackets, e.g. "[10:10]" means "10 minutes and 10 seconds into the movie". All times are approximations. 


Section 3: Paul and Early Christianity


3.1 Introduction


In Section 1: Misinformation, we looked at Flemming's uncritical recirculation of bogus information regarding early pagan gods, including his use of Beddru, the TRUE god who wasn't there. Most of those claims readers can check for themselves quickly on the Internet, and I urge readers to look into these things for themselves if they are interested -- don't take my word or Flemming's word for these claims. In Section 2: Justin Martyr: What does he REALLY say, we looked at how quotes from Justin have been used to misrepresent what Justin said. Justin wasn't trying to explain away parallels between pagan gods and Christianity, he was trying to convince his skeptical pagan audience that the pagans' own religious beliefs were based on misinterpreted writings of ancient Hebrew prophets. Satan didn't look into the future to mimic Christ's life, he copied from the Hebrew prophets... and misunderstood them. Again, the materials are freely available on the Internet, and I urge interested readers to check into these things for themselves.


In this section, we look at Flemming's views of Paul and early Christianity. Flemming highlights several issues, including:

  1. In early Christianity, there are few materials between the time of Christ's crucifixion (around 30 CE) to the first gospels (after 70 CE). It is as if "people forgot, and then remembered again".

  2. Paul doesn't appear to know many historical details of the life of Jesus, e.g. Mary, Judas, etc.

  3. Paul doesn't believe that Jesus was ever a human being. In fact, he doesn't even appear to be aware of the idea.


One thing that I will ask the reader to keep in mind when reading through this section is to keep the distinction clear between the "Gospel Jesus" and the "Historical Jesus". They are two very separate issues. I'm not interested in debating on the "Gospel Jesus", much to the chagrin of both fundy theists and fundy atheists [see Note 1 for my definition of "fundy atheist"]. Debaters on both sides sometimes concentrate on proving or disproving the "Gospel Jesus" -- they argue "what good does it do if all we are left with is some historical guy who was crucified around 30 CE?" I will leave the question to those who are concerned with this. Flemming's documentary claims that Paul was unaware of the "historical guy", so I will respond on that basis. 



3.2 'People forgot, and then remembered again'


In 79 CE, in the south of Italy, Mt Vesuvius exploded. KA-BLAM!!! Thousands of people were killed, tens of thousands were made homeless, and details of this event surely must have resonated throughout the Roman Empire in the weeks and months that followed.


So, how many eye-witness accounts, either first-hand or second-hand, do we have for this disaster which occurred in Italy itself, at a time when Roman power was starting to near its peak? Hundreds? Dozens? 


In fact, we only have: one. That's right -- only one eye-witness account. And we are lucky to have even that. The account was recorded by Tacitus, about 30 years after the eruption. However, Tacitus wasn't the eye-witness. The account came from Pliny the Younger, a young scholar who had been living nearby when Mt Vesuvius exploded. (The eruption famously killed Pliny's uncle, Pliny the Elder, the well-known author and naturalist).


Fortunately, volcanic eruptions tend to (literally) leave behind hard evidence, so no-one doubts that the event occurred. But it demonstrates the difficulty of trying to reconstruct specific historical events from the written materials of that time. Few documents from that era survived, due to low rates of literacy, the wide-spread use of oral transmission in passing on traditions, and the costs involved in copying materials from generation to generation. 


In the documentary, Flemming notes: 

"This is why you don't hear many Christian leaders talking about the early days of Christianity. Because once you assemble the facts, the story is that Jesus lived, everyone forgot and then they remembered." [14:30]

I don't think any historians would make that kind of judgement. We simply have very little Christian literature from that period, and that isn't an  unexpected situation. As Richard Carrier writes:

"First, we have no reason to expect any historical record of a HJ [historical Jesus]. We are lucky to have any sources at all from that time and place, and those sources do not record every movement or its founder."

Carrier sees no problem with the silence in early Christianity, though he believes the case from within Paul's writings is a different story (which I also agree with -- see 3.4 below). But the simple fact is, the information available to us from First Century Christianity is sketchy. Not just on Jesus and Christianity, but about many other events as well. This makes it difficult to determine what was really going on in those days, and that is why so much focus is usually laid on Paul.



3.3 Paul's Lack of References to Historical Events


Flemming notes in his documentary:

"Paul wrote lots of letters about Christianity. In fact, he wrote 80,000 words about the Christian religion. These documents represent almost all we have of the history of Christianity during this decades long gap. And here's the interesting thing: if Jesus was a human who had recently lived, nobody told Paul. Paul never heard of Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, Herod, John the Baptist. He never heard about any of these miracles. He never quotes anything that Jesus is supposed to have said. He never mentions Jesus having a ministry of any kind at all. He doesn't know about any entrance into Jerusalem. He never mentions Pontius Pilate or a Jewish mob or any trials at all. Paul doesn't know any of what we would call the story of Jesus, except for these last three events." [22:55]

And that is true. Paul doesn't give many details about the historical Christ. But let's look at this further. 


If you read through Paul's letters, you will notice an interesting pattern: Paul rarely gives historical details about a lot of other things as well. He doesn't give any historical details about himself. (We only know him as "Paul of Tarsus" through Acts.) He gives few historical details about the other apostles. In fact, interestingly enough, Paul doesn't tell us any details about his meeting with the Risen Christ. (Paul's conversion experience is recounted in Acts, but not by Paul himself in his own writings) Even if Jesus lived on a "mythical plane", Flemming agrees that Paul believes that he actually met the Risen Christ. So, where are the details? Where did Paul see Christ? When did Paul see him? What did Christ look like? What did Christ say? And what about the visions of the other disciples? Surely Paul would have enquired about details on how the Risen Christ appeared to them? 


And what about the miracles and healings that Paul mentions in his letters? Apparently these things occurred in the early church [1 Cor 12:28] and were no doubt connected to the Risen Christ, yet Paul gives no details about them. Paul also mentions about the 'mighty signs and wonders' he performed in spreading his gospel [Rom 15:19 and 2 Cor 12:12], but not a word about what he actually did or when he performed these 'wonders'. Would not his audience have been interested in these things, also? Why didn't Paul mention these things as well? In fact, Paul's lack of details has resulted in some trying to make the case that Paul himself was mythical.


This, to me, is an obvious 'blind spot' in Jesus Myth literature. While it is reasonable to ask why Paul doesn't provide historical references to Jesus, no-one asks why Paul doesn't provide details on a mythical Jesus -- one that one or more of the apostles as well as Paul himself was supposed to have met, according to most Jesus Mythers. Nor do they ask why Paul doesn't provide many historical markers in his writings about himself, other apostles or virtually anything else.


Interestingly, if you examine other Christian literature throughout the first few centuries, you will find the same pattern: few historical details are recorded, either about Jesus or the contemporary world in which the author was writing. This is one of the reasons why it is difficult for scholars to pinpoint the date that some early materials were produced. The lack of "historical markers" makes it very difficult to date them precisely. 


And note that this pattern extends to those writers who believed in a historical Jesus. Examples of "historical Jesus" proponents who provide few details about a historical Jesus in one or more of their writings range from Ignatius (early Second Century) to Commodianus (mid Third Century), long after the Gospel Jesus had been established. Tertullian's "Ad nationes", an apology for Christianity written to pagans around 200 CE, not only doesn't refer to details about Christ, he doesn't even mention the names "Jesus" or "Christ", simply referring to Christ as "the Founder".


Now, I'm not claiming that there is only one reason for this pattern, merely that it was common in the literature of the first few centuries. And tellingly, we can find the same pattern in pagan literature from that period as well. Plutarch for example wrote about 80 CE, not long after Paul. In a recent review of Plutarch's literature, the reviewer noted (my emphasis):

"But again we return to the problem that Plutarch rarely adverts directly to the contemporary world (the allusion to Domitian at Publicola 15, discussed by Stadter, is a rare and striking exception). For two contributors to this volume, his writings are notable not for their engagement with issues of contemporary currency but for their avoidance of them... Schmidt's conclusion is that Plutarch's approach is entirely traditional and reflects nothing of the contemporary world: he is wholly insulated by literary confabulation from contemporary politics. Chris Pelling, meanwhile, argues that the Caesar is carefully written to avoid the many resonances it might have had, so that the text might have a timeless rather than a contemporary feel; overall, he suggests, the Lives strategically aim for an immemorial rather than a time-specific feel."

I'd like to stress that we've barely scratched the surface here. This is really only the start of an investigation, and I offer no definitive answers. But any theory to explain the lack of historical details regarding Jesus in early literature needs to take into account that this in itself was not an unusual occurrence. The writings must be evaluated using the context of the literature of the day. This is a problem that few Jesus Mythers seem to be even aware of, much less addressed. 



3.4 Paul, the Gospel Jesus and Hebrew Scriptures


As Flemming notes, Paul doesn't appear to know many of the details that would later appear in the Gospels. He doesn't mention Herod, or Mary, nor does he quote Jesus other than on a couple of occasions. 


While lack of historical markers in itself is not unexpected (see Section 3.3 above), I think it is reasonable to point out specific silences within the writings of Paul. These silences may be proof that events in the Gospels were unknown to Paul, and suggest that the Gospels contain fictionalized accounts. Richard Carrier believes that these lack of references could even form a convincing argument from silence for ahistoricity. 


However, I suggest that Paul was less concerned with providing details about Jesus than with tying Jesus back to Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). One of Paul's main themes was that Christ's crucifixion offered salvation to the Gentiles. In order to prove this, Paul had to dig into the Hebrew Scriptures to prove that Christ was compatible to the person prefigured there. And Paul certainly did this -- very "creatively", sometimes!  And this was by no means particular to Paul. In the following hundred years, many writers -- including historicist ones -- were concerned with showing that Christ conformed to the Hebrew Scriptures. Some examples:

Acts 17:11:

"But the people of Beroea were more fair minded than those in Thessalonica, and gladly listened to the message. They searched the Scriptures day by day to check up on Paul and Silas' statements, to see if they were really so."

Ignatius (writing in the first half of the Second Century): 

"And I exhort you to do nothing out of strife, but according to the doctrine of Christ. When I heard some saying, If I do not find it in the ancient Scriptures, I will not believe the Gospel; on my saying to them, It is written, they answered me, That remains to be proved."

Justin Martyr (writing around 150 CE): 

"For with what reason should we believe of a crucified man that He is the first-born of the unbegotten God, and Himself will pass judgment on the whole human race, unless we had found testimonies concerning Him published before He came and was born as man."

So, did Paul know the Gospel Jesus? It is hard to tell. There are many hints in there to suggest that either Paul knew some details or that one or more of the authors of the Gospels used Paul to 'mine' for details about Christ. On the other hand, there are obvious silences in Paul that suggest that some details of the Gospel Jesus were unknown to him. But similar criticisms can be laid at the door of even obvious historicist writers like Ignatius, without necessarily concluding that the author didn't believe in a historical Jesus. 



3.5 How did Paul view Jesus?


Flemming states in his documentary:

"Paul doesn't believe that Jesus was ever a human being. He's not even aware of the idea." [14:30]

I think that this statement needs to be taken with a huge grain of salt. Paul makes a few statements which certainly appears to suggest that he viewed Jesus as a human being, in fact a human being much like himself. Those statements require the Jesus Mythers to "explain away" rather than use the face reading. For example, Paul refers to Christ as "anthropos", which means "man", and describes Christ as "born of a woman". However, these things have been debated elsewhere many times, so I won't repeat these arguments on this webpage. Earl Doherty covers some of these issues here. Christopher Price offers a strong refutation here. I urge interested readers to read both articles.


In this section, I'd like to cover some other points which get less discussion. First, let's look at another comment by Flemming in his documentary:

"Paulís Christ Jesus died, rose, and ascended all in a mythical realm." [13:30]


This "mythical realm" is presented by some Jesus Mythers as a realm either in the far past, or in some timeless dimension. As I mentioned earlier, like many other writers of his time, Paul didn't give many specific details in his writings. However, does Paul offer any hints on when Jesus existed? The answer is: yes, indeed! Let's look at some statements by Paul, and see where they take us.


Paul clearly has Jesus coming AFTER Abraham:

Gal3:16 Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, "And to seeds," as of many, but as of one, "And to your Seed," who is Christ. 17 And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect. 18 For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise. 19 What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made.

"Till the Seed should come" suggests a time after Abraham. To underline this point, Paul appears to have Jesus coming after Moses as well:

"Romans 5:12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned-- 13 (For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come."

So, Christ came after Adam. If "sin was in the world" from Adam until Moses, it suggests that Paul was unlikely to have thought that Christ came BEFORE Moses.


Next, Paul says:

Romans 5:6 For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.

Note the past tense. Paul doesn't say when Christ died, merely placing it in the past. So, Christ died BEFORE Paul wrote, and arguably AFTER Moses. Next:

1 Cor:15 3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. 
6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep.

So Christ died, was buried and rose 3 days later, where he was seen by Cephas, a man that Paul himself met. While Paul doesn't specify the periods between death and burial, he also doesn't indicate that there is any long gap. It certainly reads like it is a recent event, as does the following :

Gal 1:4 who did give himself for our sins, that he might deliver us out of the present evil age, according to the will of God even our Father

I'm assuming that "give himself for our sins" refers to the Crucifixion. "Present evil age" is the age that Paul is currently living in, though we don't know how long such an age is. Next:

1Cr 15:20 And now, Christ hath risen out of the dead -- the first-fruits of those sleeping he became

"Those sleeping" appears to refer to those Christians who have already died. Christ died and became the "first-fruits" of other Christians who died. Paul gives no time period between these two events, so there could be a long time between the time Christ rose from the dead (3 days after crucifixion) and the other Christians who have died. But again, it reads like it is a recent event for Paul.


"Rom 5:10 for if, being enemies, we have been reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved in his life. 11 And not only [so], but we are also boasting in God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom now we did receive the reconciliation"

"We have been reconciled to God through the death of His Son" and "Through whom now we received the reconciliation". This also appears to place the death of Christ as occuring close to the current time.

Paul clearly has Christ dying after Abraham. I believe that the circumstantial evidence is strong to indicate that he believed that Christ died in Paul's recent past.


Are there any hints about where Paul placed Christ? Yes -- he seems to have placed him in Jerusalem ("Zion")!

Romans 11:26 So all Israel will be saved, as it is written: "The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodilness from Jacob; for this is My covenant with then, when I take away their sins.

Someone has raised the objection that Paul is talking about "the Heavenly Jerusalem". However, Paul elsewhere distinguishes between the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly one, and Satan crucifying Jesus in the Heavenly Jerusalem seems extremely unlikely. So on the face of those statement, Paul has Jesus coming out of Jerusalem. 

What about the timing for when Christ died? In 1 Cor 5:7 Paul writes

The "paschal lamb" was sacrificed at Passover celebration in Jerusalem. It certainly sounds like a reference to Christ being crucified at Passover.


Also, we can see that the genealogical description that Paul gives about himself parallels the description found in Paul and other letters deemed to be by mythicists. Here are two examples:


Example 1: Both Paul and Christ are "seeds of Abraham". In Romans 11, Paul writes:

"1 I say then, Hath God cast away his people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, the tribe of Benjamin." 


Example 2: Paul is from "the tribe of Benjamin", while the author of Hebrews describes Jesus as being from "the tribe of Judah". In Hebrews 7, the Pauline author writes:

Hbr 7:14 for [it is] evident that out of Judah hath arisen our Lord, in regard to which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood

Combined with Paul's comment in Gal 4 that Jesus was "born of a woman, born under the law", a strong case can be mounted that the early Christians regarded Jesus as a human being. Unfortunately this is something that Flemming appears unaware of, much less addressed in the two years since he released his movie.


Finally, a third example: In Romans 9, Paul writes that Christ came from the Israelites, of "whom are the fathers":

3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, 4 who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; 5 of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came. 

Putting all of these together, the circumstantial evidence is strong that the early Christians regarded Jesus as a Jew, from the tribe of Judah, who was crucified in Jerusalem and died in the recent past. 



3.6 Evidence for a historical Jesus: some secular comments


Without doubt most biblical scholars believe that there is reasonable evidence to conclude that there was a historical Jesus. But some Jesus Mythers claim that this conclusion is reached a priori, either due to the scholar's faith position (if he/she is a theist), or due to a pre-existing paradigm which the scholar is 'locked into' (if not a theist). Let's look at comments from two secular scholars: Jeffery Jay Lowder and Peter Kirby.


Jeffery Jay Lowder is a cofounder and Past President of Internet Infidels, who writes on historical criticism issues. In this article here, Lowder examines whether the New Testament provides prima facie evidence for the historicity of Jesus. He looks at some criteria of independent confirmation, and concludes (my emphasis):

"There simply is nothing epistemically improbable about the mere existence of a man named Jesus. (Just because Jesus existed does not mean that he was born of a virgin, that he rose from the dead, etc.) Although a discussion of the New Testament evidence is beyond the scope of this paper, I think that the New Testament does provide prima facie evidence for the historicity of Jesus. It is clear, then, that if we are going to apply to the New Testament "the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material," we should not require independent confirmation of the New Testament's claim that Jesus existed."

Peter Kirby is the list owner of the XTIANITY mailing list, and recently contributed to a published work investigating the Empty Tomb concept from a critical/skeptical perspective. In this article here on Josephus's two references to Christ, Peter states that he is "presently persuaded to regard the shorter reference as authentic" and notes (my emphasis):

"But assuming that at least the shorter reference is authentic, what can we conclude from this? It shows that Josephus accepted the historicity of Jesus. Simply by the standard practice of conducting history, a comment from Josephus about a fact of the first century constitutes prima facie evidence for that fact. It ought to be accepted as history unless there is good reason for disputing the fact."

These comments are provisional. Neither are strong support for a historical Jesus. And I am sure that Lowder and Kirby would agree that they offer no support at all for the Gospel Jesus. 


But the conclusions have been weighed in terms of "using the same sort of criteria" applied to other ancient writings. Early Christian writings should be treated no better than any other ancient writing -- but they should not be treated any worse. 


Certainly, a strong Mythicist case would overturn such prima facie evidence. However, to date, the only mythicist to present an article review to a peer-reviewed publication is Earl Doherty. His article appeared in a 1997 edition of the Journal for Higher Criticism, a journal that declares "This Publication May be Hazardous to Your Cherished Assumptions!" But strangely, no-one published a review of his article. 


Until mythicists 'step up to the plate' and begin to engage modern scholarship by submitting their ideas to peer-reviewed publication, there is no reason to reject the idea of a historical Jesus. Based on standard practice of conducting historical research, it is reasonable to conclude that there is a prima facie case for a historical Jesus.



3.7 Conclusion


When the amount of available data is low, it can be used to provide support for virtually any theory. Paul doesn't give us much to go on, and so any conclusion using Paul as evidence should be regarded cautiously (including my conclusion below!)


Did Paul believe that there was a historical Jesus, who walked the earth in his recent past? I suggest that there is strong circumstantial evidence to give a confident answer of "yes". But there are certainly some silences that raise suspicions about how much he knew about that Jesus. On the other hand, there is a similar silence in Paul about the "mythical" Jesus.


More significantly, we should note that Paul simply gives few historical details about anything. This pattern was not unique to Paul, and can be found in early writings of both Christians and pagans.


Finally, it should be noted that many secular scholars who have looked at the available evidence have generally accepted that there was a historical Jesus. However, I don't doubt that a strong case from mythicist proponents would be able to overturn this conclusion; but to date, no such strong case has been put forward. (Doherty's Jesus Myth is generally regarded as the strongest case, but it runs counter to the Middle-Platonistic views of the time, so goes against the evidence available. I've noticed that few, if any, of Doherty's more vocal supporters have any understanding of Middle-Platonism. I will look at Doherty's thesis, as well as some others, in Section 4.) The historian Richard Carrier has recently announced that he regards mythicism as the slightly stronger hypothesis, so perhaps he will be the first to present a firm case in a scholarly forum. However, until mythicists start to present their cases in peer-reviewed publication, the current consensus that there probably was a historical Jesus is a reasonable position based on standard practice of conducting historical research.  


Note: Kevin Rosero has added a nice review of this article in his blog here. Thanks Kevin! 



Note 1: "Fundy atheists"


Though I don't think I am the first to use the term "fundy atheist", I created the term after I was threatened with hell-fire for not believing that the Bible was literally true... by an atheist! As a moderate Christian myself, I have debated both fundamentalist theists and "fundy atheists", and ironically, I have been threatened with hell-fire more often from the fundy atheists. (Obviously, they didn't believe in hell-fire, but they genuinely appear to have believed that I should have been concerned by the idea). 


Fundamentalist Christians affirm a "fundamental" set of Christian beliefs, including the inerrancy of the Bible. "Fundy atheists" don't have these beliefs, of course, but "Fundy atheists" and "Fundy theists" do share these three core attributes:

  1. A belief that the Bible is either the literal word of God or it is rubbish. It has to be one or the other.

  2. Moderate Christians are wishy-washy hypocrites.

  3. A strong conviction that science/modern scholarship supports their position. But if it doesn't support their position, it is because those scholars have some kind of agenda, or they are somehow "threatened" by the fundy's position. 


One of the more amusing traits of fundy atheists is that they will produce rants that are often indistinguishable from fundy Christians. And Flemming doesn't disappoint. In his documentary, he says:

"And if [the Bible] is wrong, what the hell is moderate Christianity? Jesus was only sort of the son of God? He only somewhat rose from the dead? Your eternal soul is at stake, but you shouldn't make a big deal out of it? Moderate Christianity makes no sense. Is it any wonder that so many people choose the Christian leaders who actually have the courage of their convictions?" [34:00]

A fundamentalist Christian reviewer of Flemming's movie, having slammed the movie for its erroneous content, notes Flemming's comment above. Calling it a comment of "merit", the reviewer says approvingly "I couldn't agree more".


Enough said. 



End of Section 3. 


Go to: Section 4: "Jesus Myth overview: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"



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