Eric's Reviews > Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible & Why We Don't Know About Them

Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman
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Apr 14, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: religion, recent-reads
Read in April, 2009

First off, I think it’s important to dismiss any of the common misunderstandings about Bart Ehrman and this book. The book is not a diatribe. It does not set out to debunk Christianity. Ehrman, in my opinion, is not angry, condescending, or uncaring in this book – quite the opposite, actually. Ehrman is not asking that you abandon your faith. I personally feel, having read the book, that Ehrman has served us up a wonderful tool, and has provided us with a great opportunity for discussion that could be very good for society at this point in time. It is also very important to understand that the book does not make any assertions that are new, radical, or unpopular among biblical scholars. And that is exactly what makes the book so incredibly fascinating, and quite honestly, shocking.

Ehrman is very clear from the get-go that he is not serving up anything that would be surprising to anyone who went through a non-evangelical seminary schooling. The assertions in Ehrman’s book are something that most ministers and scholars of the New Testament have learned. They are things that have been agreed upon by the vast majority of biblical scholars. The only shocking part is that we, as a nation and a society so greatly influenced by the Bible, know so little about The Bible. We think we know a lot about it, and in many ways we do. We know the parables. We know, and can recite from memory, entire portions of scripture. We know the many characters, their many trials, and we know the great many lessons to be learned from The Bible. But those of us who claim we know our Bible – what do we really know? We tend to believe that it is the inerrant word of God. We view it as a book. We call it “The Good Book”. We treat it as a package, a unit, as we do most other books we own.

The problem is that we do not approach the Bible from a historical-critical perspective. We do this with any other manuscripts or literature when we want to better understand it. Why do we not approach our most beloved text in the same way? We read each book in the Bible, but rarely do we compare narratives and note their striking theological and historical differences. We often do not take into account when each book was written, to whom, by whom, and why. Mostly, this is due to the popular notion that it is God’s book, and it is inerrant or divinely inspired and therefore its attributes are divine and universal. If we believe that, then we are not doing a very good job of reading.

Ehrman notes the phenomenon of compressing different narratives into one clean narrative – creating a narrative that cannot be found existing on its own in the Bible. He writes of our reluctance to read the books of the Bible horizontally – meaning comparing separate accounts of the same events in different books, rather than compiling aspects of each into one imagining. If we read the books of the Bible, Gospels or otherwise, horizontally, we notice how much of what we know about the Bible is contradictory, irreconcilable, historically incorrect, or theologically incompatible. He urges that in order to fully understand what each author is trying to say, we need to look at the details of each account – each author is using devices to make a theological point, a point that is lost when we create our own narratives from more than one account.

Here are some things, from Ehrman’s book, that many of us do not know, or accept. And it is important to note that these are not simply Erhman’s assertions, but are well-documented by Biblical scholars, and Ehrman provides a wealth of footnotes, and supporting information and bibliographies which he urges the reader to explore on their own. And that is one thing Ehrman does do – he urges the reader, on many occasions, to read your own Bibles and do your own research.

• “Of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, only eight almost certainly were written by the authors to whom they are traditionally ascribed: the seven undisputed letters of Paul and the Revelation of John” (which may not be the John most people believe it to be.)

• The other nineteen books fall into three groups: “Misattributed writings”, “Homonymous writings” (written by someone who has the same name as someone else, i.e. James was most likely written by a James, but not written by Jesus’ brother James – its reason for inclusion as scripture), and “Pseudepigraphic writings” (written in the names of people who did not actually write them – scholars have known this for over a century).

• “In Matthew, Jesus refuses to perform miracles in order to prove his identity; in John, that is practically the only reason he does miracles.”

• “Jesus’ disciples were “lower-class, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking peasants from Galilee.” “The authors of the Gospels were highly educated, Greek-speaking Christians who probably lived outside Palestine.”

• There exists a wealth of early Christian forgeries (Gospels allegedly written by Peter, Philip, Thomas, James the brother of Jesus. There were forged apostolic acts, “such as the Acts of John and of Paul and Thecla; we have epistles, such as the letter to the Laodiceans, 3 Corinthians, letters between Paul and the Roman philosopher Seneca, and letters allegedly written by Peter to James in order to oppose Paul; and we have a number of apocalypses, an Apocalypse of Peter (which nearly made it into the canon, and an Apocalypse of Paul”. It is likely that forgeries could have made it into the canon.

• “This view that the New Testament contains books written under false names is taught at virtually all the major institutions of higher learning except strongly evangelical schools”. “It is the view taught in all the major textbooks on the New Testament used in these institutions. It is the view taught in the seminaries and divinity schools. It is what pastors learn when they are preparing for ministry.”

• The Gospels were likely written after the year 70. Between the time of Jesus and these writings, Christianity was spreading through major urban areas of the Mediterranean region, solely by word of mouth. The way to convert people away from their (mostly) pagan religions was to tell them stories about Jesus: what he said and did, and how he died and was raised from the dead. Word of mouth, in a world of no mass media. If you look at our own ability to create urban legends, exaggerate, or alter details in the age of information, it would be disingenuous to assume that in the decades of repeated oral histories of Jesus, details did not undergo changes before they were committed to paper.

• If Jesus lived and died in the first century, what do the Greek and Roman sources from his own day through the end of the century have to say about him? The answer is breathtaking. They have absolutely nothing to say about him. He is never discussed, challenged, attacked, maligned, or talked about in any way in any surviving pagan source of the period. There are no birth records, accounts of his trial and death, reflections on his significance, or disputes about his teachings…his name is never mentioned once in any pagan source. And we have a lot of Greek and Roman sources from the period: religious scholars, historians, philosophers, poets, natural scientists; we have thousands of private letters; we have inscriptions placed on buildings in public places. In no first-century Greek or Roman (pagan) source is Jesus mentioned.”

• CS Lewis put forth the formulation that since Jesus called himself God, there were only three logical possibilities: he was either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. Ehrman states that “none of our earliest traditions indicates that Jesus said any such thing about himself. And surely if Jesus had really spent his days in Galilee and then Jerusalem calling himself God, all of our sources would be eager to report it.” “Only in the latest of our Gospels”, John, a Gospel that shows considerably more theological sophistication than the others, does Jesus indicate that he is divine.” Perhaps Lewis’s formula is flawed. Perhaps Jesus was actually “a first-century Palestinian Jew who had a message to proclaim other than his own divinity”.

• The idea of the divine being becoming human was not introduced until the Gospel of John, written after the other three Gospels.

• There are “flat out discrepancies among the books of the New Testament. Sometimes these discrepancies could be reconciled if one worked hard enough at it with pious imagination; other times the discrepancies could not be reconciled, however fanciful the explanation.” (i.e. Jesus dies on different days in Mark and John).

• “A whole range of theological perspectives came into existence, not during the life of Jesus, or even through the teachings of his original apostles, but later, as the Christian church grew and came to be transformed into a new religion rather than a sect of Judaism. These include some of the most important Christian doctrines, such as that of a suffering Messiah, the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, and the existence of heaven and hell.”

These are only a few examples of items that I personally found fascinating (there scores more tidbits, inaccuracies, contradictions, and theological problems, that Ehrman details), and in some cases shocking. I grew up in the Methodist church. I was exposed to the Bible as much as your average Christian. Obviously I formed my own opinions, as we all do, in regards to the Bible’s inerrancy, historical accuracy, etc. I took a few courses in college in which we studied the Bible from a historical critical perspective. These had a huge influence on my changing views of The Bible and of religion in general. Therefore, many of Erhman’s assertions, opinions, and conclusions, did not come as a surprise. But the experience of reading “Jesus, Interrupted” is certainly eye-opening even for those who have been exposed to reading the Bible from the historical-critical perspective.

I understand the reluctance of many to read the book. I understand the knee-jerk reaction to Ehrman. Sure, anytime we are asked to truly examine our own long-held beliefs, we are hesitant. With these understandings, I would urge anyone who has any interest in the Bible to read the book. It is not meant to change your faith. It likely will, however, change aspects of your faith. Ehrman does is not stating there is no God. He is not stating that Jesus did not exist. He is not saying Jesus did not perform miracles or rise from the dead. There are some things we cannot know from historical critical research. That is where faith comes in. All Ehrman is urging is for us to allow ourselves to truly know and understand the human aspects of the New Testament. Why the Bible exists as it is, who wrote it, and why they wrote what they wrote. There are two texts that greatly affect us in our daily lives: The Bible and the Constitution. It is shocking that we know so little about how both came to be. It is up to us to make our own decisions about the things in it which we cannot prove or disprove. But we have no excuse for not exploring and understanding centuries of painstaking research on the most important text ever written. If Ehrman is not your cup of tea, there are numerous other books, and plenty of divinity programs serving it up in another form.

It’s a fascinating read. Ehrman is a refreshing voice in non-fiction. He’s incredibly knowledgeable, funny, and likeable, regardless of your religious views. I urge everyone, believers and non-believers, to spend some time with his writings. You will be challenged and you will learn a lot, no matter your background (okay, unless you’ve been through seminary school), and that’s something that’s rare in these days when we tend to live in ideological echo chambers.

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Comments (showing 1-18 of 18) (18 new)

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message 1: by Ted (new)

Ted we don't know about them because jesus doesn't want us to know about them, infidel.

message 2: by Amy (new)

Amy Eric, I still pray for you. Clearly you are searching. The only advice I could give you is to read the actual Bible instead of reading all of these other books you read. I commend you for being a searcher...that's a good thing. But until you actually swallow the bible by itself, you can't really get what it's trying to tell you through what other authors say. If there was hope for Paul, there's still hope for you. :) And I'm keeping you in my prayers....God's working on you.

Also, there is a book I'd like for you to read if you can. It's called Letters from A Skeptic by Gregory Boyd. I read it recently, and the whole time I thought of you.

message 3: by Amy (new)

Amy Oh, and please take this from a position that I just really care. I don't want to force anything on you or make you feel bad in any way. I just like you so much that I really want you to experience what I experience. It's so good that I can't help but want it for you. Once you have a desire for Christ...all you need is a tiny one....He will open your eyes to things you can't see right now. I know you don't understand that and it probably sounds a little heebee jeebee to you, but i promise's the truth.

Eric amy, don't worry, i appreciate your comments and you are always kind. i will state that my interest in religion and the bible is more from a cultural anthropological standpoint. i appreciate your concern for me, and i certainly would never ask anyone not to pray for me, but in all honesty i have never been more comfortable with myself and my place in the universe than i have in the past few years. i actually do read the bible, and this book prompted me to read it more than i have in a while. the reason this book exists is to help people understand the bible from a historical and critical perspective. telling someone to read the bible instead of a book like this, is like asking someone not to read books on the pyramids when you can just look at the pyramids yourself. i hope you understand my perspective, and my reasons for my interest in religion, and don't take these comments in any way as my not appreciating your comments or my trying to make you feel bad -- in the same way that you are not trying to make me feel bad. i know it's hard for you to understand, but i'm really not having any spiritual crisis in any way.

message 5: by Scott (new)

Scott Therein lies the rub. Christians (and religious folk in general) tend to think their way is superior and there is no possible way that any other belief system could be remotely as fulfilling or real. That's why they can't seem to fathom that we might want to research and learn about perhaps the single most heavy influence on western culture. It's not necessarily a symptom of emptiness and soul searching. And it's frankly kind of condescending to suggest otherwise under the guise of "oh, you'll get it some day. Just ignore all them pesky facts you're reading about and let blind faith set you free".

No thanks.

message 6: by Amy (new)

Amy despite what scott said i in no way meant to be condescending. I also in no way meant to imply that your life is not fulfilling or real or that you are having a spiritual crisis. Sorry to offend. I sometimes forget that the internet is mostly a public forum and when I comment on your sites eric, i am inviting criticism. I should have remembered to send you a personal message after all the stuff on facebook.

Again sorry. I was truly unaware that I had said anything disrespectful. And Scott, sorry that you took major offense at my comment.

Eric amy, i know you too well to think that you meant to condescend. i know i've been accused of the same many a time, so i try not to take offense even if that is the case. no worries at all. no need for apology. i was simply trying to underscore the fact that the book is about the critical historical approach to understanding the bible, which is entirely a different animal than reading it without the frame of reference established by a larger understanding of its origins. people are of course entitled to approach it any way they wish. i was just reviewing ehrmans' book, which is fascinating and probably not what you think, based on your comment about 'all these other books you read'. it's an area of interest, and i like to learn what the people who study it have learned. much like i would read a book by carl sagan on astronomy or fareed zakaria on middle-east policy. not out of searching, but out of a thirst for knowledge on a subject. again, no worries and no offense at all. i apologize if my review or my comments were antagonistic in any way. not my intention, i assure you.

message 8: by Rob (new) - added it

Rob I'm looking forward to reading this book. Having said that I most assuredly cannot critique this book. However, I think it is interesting to make the assertion that Christians do not treat the Bible from a historical-critical perspective. To think this way about the Bible by 99.9% of Christians (except for seminary students or scholars) would be a new paradigm shift. Yes, there are Bible studies but generally this is done to apply the Bible to one's life. Not to compare to other texts and historical documents for factual comparisons or to critique it.

The Bible, while it does contain historical information, isn't necessarily written as a history book. Nor, is it a science book. It wasn't written for those reasons or purposes. To question why so many people in many cases believe it is the infallable word of God is not hard to fathom if you think about it (don't take this as my personal belief but just a general statement). It is the belief system most Christians were born into or have been taught by someone else they trusted. This is no different than most people not questioning Evolution. It's kind of like most everything in our lives - each generation stands on the shoulders of the generation before them. We don't reinvent the wheel each time there is a new generation. I am willing to bet if you ask most Americans to explain Evolution they will not be able to do it yet most will probably except that Evolution is fact. They may scratch the surface and say something like "it is the survival of the fitest" but could not tell you more beyond a very simplistic summary of what Evolution is.

message 9: by Rob (new) - added it

Rob One other comment... to me it is perfectly acceptable for there to be discrepencies between the Gospels. These books were written by different people (either by the actual person the book is attributed to or someone else). One would expect there to be differences between accounts just as there are factual discrepencies between witnesses at a crime scene. To expect the authors of the Gospel or any book of the Bible to be any better at recalling events than a modern day person is holding the authors of the Gospels to a higher standard.

message 10: by Eric (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eric hi rob. i look forward to hearing what you think of the book. i will be happy to lend it to you if you're interested.

i actually stand by my statement that it is surprising that most people do not, or have not, truly studied the bible from a historical-critical perspective. and most have not read the bible horizontally, as ehrman discusses at length in the book. (i have to some degree, but only because i was required by a college course). you pretty much nailed this with the comment that we don't reinvent the wheel and that this is the belief system we are born into. if people did read the bible in these ways, people would not be surprised when you told them that only 8 of the new testaments books are agreed by nearly all scholars to be written by who they are attributed to. or that there is no record anywhere of king herod slaughtering children in and around bethlehem (or anywhere else, for that matter). or that there is no record anywhere of an empire-wide census in which people must return to the home of their ancestors (there is a reason, obviously for this narrative device). (both of the former are key to the birth story.) or the fact that the genealogies of jesus served up in matthew are historically implausible when measured against what we know from history. or that the genealogies provided by matthew skips three generations when compared to other genealogies, such as in 1 chronicles. (he has a valid reason for doing this -- another device. in fact, all of the above examples have reasons. but they are not obvious (or even noticed) without a histocial/critical/horizontal reading of the texts.

i think the point ehrman is making, and i agree, is that, for a text that is without a doubt the most important and influential document in history, we certainly don't seem very interested in understanding it. we are by and large, biblically illiterate for a country with such a christian influence. although i am a big fan of the separation of church and state, i think we could really benefit from high school elective surveys of religion and the study of the bible, the qur'an, etc. because they play such a large part in our society, in our foreign affairs, and in politics.

i agree with you that the bible was not written as a history book or as a science book, but there are a great many who disagree, and take the historical aspects of the bible as god-given facts. they take the primitive scientific claims as the same, much to the detriment of science and history. i certainly understand why so many take the bible as the inerrant word of god. and i believe that folks such as ehrman are doing a good job of getting that dialogue going. many bristle at the idea of even discussing these things, but if faith is to be rocked by questioning the how's and why's and when's of these texts, then i question the individual's faith. it does not require a disbelief in god, or in jesus, to accept some of these assertions about the bible that have near-unanimous agreement in scholarly circles. it may mean that need to rethink how we approach our faith, and it may mean that some of the things we have accepted as fact may not be so, but isn't that the nature of the universe? what is faith if it is not challenged, or if it is not required that we reevaluate the ideas that we inherited through birth. once the catholics had to give in to the fact that the earth rotated around the sun, despite biblical claims otherwise, and there are still quite a few reverent catholics milling about.

the comparison to evolution, to me, is not a valid one. loads of people question evolution. they need more proof than most scientists would require (they do not ask for this same level of certainty about biblical assertions). scientists question aspects of evolution every day. changes are made to long-standing theories when new discoveries are made. the idea of a linear progression from monkey to man was trashed in recent years after the discovery that it is more like a wayward bush with stubby branches than a clean line from primitive man to homo sapeins. you do not see this willingness to accept new discoveries when it comes to people's faith.

and most americans actually do not believe in evolution (4 in 10). but you are true in that hardly anyone understands it.

maybe it's just me, but when i stand for something, or believe strongly in it, i want to be educated about it from many angles and understand it. i guess it's silly in a way to expect this about the bible. which to me is still strange. we study all of the following critically and historically in order to grasp a greater understanding: poetry, diaries (pepys, anyone?), letters, films, paintings, medical drawings, architecture, novels, short stories, biographies, historical documents, greek and roman mythology, etc., etc. it is just strange to me that the scholarly findings about the bible are considered by many to be offensive to their faith, or they are simply not discussed or shared. even by our pastors, for whom these things are familiar. i personally feel (and this may be easy for me to say since i am not religious) that these things would bring comfort and understanding to people. it certainly would clear up a whole lot.

message 11: by Rob (new) - added it

Rob I totally agree with you that the general populus of the Christian community has not read or studied the bible from the historical-critical or even read the Bible horizonitally. And, without a doubt, the Bible and Christianity, have had and continue to be the single most influence on humanity.

To say that pastors have studied the critical aspects of the Bible and have deconstructed it is true. I have spoken to several pastors about this. But the amazing thing is that with the 100's of 1,000 of pastors who have used these techniques still believe in the central themes that underpin the Christian faith. The Bible is very complex from a historical, philosophical and spiritiual perspective. It is too complex for most people to comprehend just one of these perspectives in a deep and meaningful way much less to do a historical-critical analysis or to read the Bible horizontially. That's not an excuse it's just a fact. I still stand by my ascertion that discrepencies between accounts by the authors of the Bible is completely understandable just as witnesses to an event or a crime scene will often remember things or experience it differently. Does this make what they witnessed wrong? And, to add that the books of the NT were, in many cases written decades after the death of Christ makes people's memory even foggier - remember the authors were human too.

I disagree with you on the evolution comparision. Just as there are scientist studying and challenging evolution there are scholars studying and challenging the accounts of the Bible - even more so today as evidenced by scholars such as Ehrman. Heck, just watch the Discovery or the History Channel and there are all kinds of historical/scientific documentaries about the accounts of the Bible. Maybe it's not to the same scope or breadth that evolution is being studied but there are very real and very scientific analysis being conducted.

But more than anything, religion is more than history and the science that may exist behind it - it is a philosphy of life and it does require a "leap of faith". To analyze it purely from a historical/scientific point of view misses out on the spiritutal aspects and significance. To say that people study and critique poetry, diaries, letters, films, etc, etc, is true but this is also done with religious texts as well. But, neither the secular or religious critical analysis is done necessarily by the masses. It is done by a relative minority of the population. Here's my point - I like to read and watch movies for the sake of entertainment and my personal enjoyment but I (and I dare say most people) don't want to analyze, critique or deconstruct books or movies. Yes, there are poeple who enjoy doing this but the general populus doesn't do this in any deep manner of which you suggest people should do with the Bible. Oh yes, you will hear people talking about recent movies, books, etc. but generally it is just their general experience (i.e. oh that was a great book or movie and I highly recommend it or don't waste your time). And people of faith do this also about their experiences at worship services, Bible studies, or religous books they are reading - it's really no difference in behavior.

Eric, (and I mean this as a compliment) you are in a small number of people who have this unsatiable quest for knowledge in many different "disciplines" (i.e religion, politics, literature, movies, music, etc. etc.). I'm amazed by how deeply you want to understand and appreciate the things you are interested in your life. But, one thing everyone needs to be careful is not to look at things in a magnifying glass or microscope you sometimes lose or don't appreciate the bigger picture. Kind of like Colbert's elephant and the blind men riddle he told Ehrman. Each blind man truly experienced one aspect of the elephant (one thought it was a wall, one thought it was a spear, one thought it was a tree trunk) but they missed the fact that it was an elephant.

message 12: by Eric (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eric you're correct in that i expect too much of people. it is probably one of my greatest failings. i have an obsessive nature -- hey, i get it honestly -- about a lot of things, and definitely when it comes to absorbing knowledge and facts about things i'm interested in.

you are absolutely right about most people not going to the trouble of deconstructing and analyzing their books and movies and whatnot. and you are right in that the bible is incredibly complex. not only theologically, but narrative-wise, and in its sheer breadth of scope. i probably give people too much credit.

the colbert elephant example, while funny, actually distracts from what ehrman is stating. he's actually saying something similar to what colbert is saying. erhman's point by showing the contradictions in the narratives is to show that these are NOT historical narratives so much as they are theological narratives. we should look at the differences and ask why they are different. the answer is almost always because each author was trying to say something completely different than the other, by telling the story a different way, or focusing on something that the other did not. which, in effect, is feeling the tusk while the other is feeling the trunk. ehrman's point is that we can't look at these stories as inerrant histories full of facts about jesus's life, or even his words or his deeds. i think a very important analogy is the story of george washington chopping down the cherry tree. we all learn this, in school evein, and we believe it to be true. we believe it to be a fact of washington's life. when in actuality it never occurred, ans was manufactured by mason weems as a parable to demonstrate washington's honesty. but this approach to the new testament requires a critical reading, which we've agreed is not very realistic to expect.

once again, i think we agree more than we disagree on this whole thing. i do agree that too much analysis can mar the holistic understanding of scripture. but i also believe, as in the case of the author's reasons for telling the story differnetly, that the holistic understanding can be strengthened through analysis.

message 13: by Wendy (new)

Wendy It is interesting to me that the reason we have 4 gospels (not 5,3,or some other number) is likely because of the selection by people like Iraneaus who stated that there should be four because there are four directions, four winds etc and that seemed to be a good reason to him. He chose which four he felt should be the ones and annointed them as divinely inspired...long before the Council convened which fixed what would be included in the Bible. The historical context is something that should remind one how easily the Christian canon could have included different ideas and writings and that another of the various different contending schools of thought about Jesus and about what was true Christianity could have won out.

Kenny Bell PLEASE READ* Does Bart Erhman provide the resources or evidence to where he claims "We don't have the original bible" and "we dont know who wrote the bible"? He just says this thing without pointing readers where to look this up. And it was also weird to me that if we dont have the original bible then what did they use to translate to English?

message 15: by David (new) - added it

David Acevedo Christianity doesn't need to be debunked to be debunked. It was born debunked. It surprises me how many people still believe in that shit.

message 16: by Ruth (new)

Ruth E. R. Wow thanks for the warning. As someone who has been a Bible scholar since birth & read it completely several times, and know Jesus personally, I am very sad to know that the book of fiction you reviewed exists to deceive everyone, "even, if possible, the elect." The beauty of the Word of God is its perfect harmony between authors of various times and professions. There is nothing complicated about its truth. From Genesis to Revealtion it is the story of Jesus Christ and how he makes it possible to know him personally, as the 40 authors of scripture did.

message 17: by Ruth (new)

Ruth E. R. Recommended: "I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist" by Norman Geisler & Frank Turek

message 18: by Ruth (new)

Ruth E. R. You and the author and secular divinity schools resemble the Pharisees, who hated and killed Jesus because he told them their "educated" and "moral" regulations were "filthy rags" (what was used for menstruation back then). They killed Jesus because his simple message had authority and gave life, as he proved theirs was superficial and empty.

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