If the gospels were known at all anytime in the first century through to the middle of the second century why did no-one seem to write about them or mention the story in them? Why did they even write about Jesus’ life on earth in ways that directly contradict what we read in the Gospels?
Is the table by Glenn Davis a useful guide to get an overview of who quoted what from the Gospels in the early centuries of Christianity?
Here is one example of where a well-known “Church Father” writing in the middle of the second century drops a detail about the life of Jesus that just does not make a lot of sense to anyone who knows about the Gospels:
Everyone knows that the Gospels narrate how the disciples all deserted Jesus when he was betrayed by Judas and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane (though not all Gospels specify Gethsemane as the scene). Many of us are familiar with the way the Gospels also explain that this was in fulfilment of an Old Testament prophecy: “Strike the shepherd and the sheep shall be scattered” (Zechariah 13:7). But when we read two different works by the prominent church father of the mid-second century, Justin Martyr, we find that he says that the disciples deserted Jesus after he was crucified! And Justin makes perfect sense of this because he also quotes the same prophecy in Zechariah but more aptly applies the striking of the shepherd to the crucifixion of Jesus, not his preliminary arrest.
How is it possible for anyone familiar with the Gospel narrative of Jesus that we know from the Gospels get confused on this pivotal dramatic detail? The desertion at the moment of the betrayal of Jesus is one of the iconic moments in the narrative across all four Gospels. Betrayal by Judas and desertion by the other eleven all happen at the same point of time to mark the moment of the collective failure, leaving Jesus from that moment to face his ordeal of unjust trials, beatings and crucifixion alone.
We have reasonable grounds for believing that Justin Martyr wrote around the middle years of the second century. Here is what he wrote — twice — about the moment the disciples deserted Jesus:
Accordingly, after He was crucified, even all His acquaintances forsook Him, having denied Him; and afterwards, when He had risen from the dead and appeared to them, and had taught them to read the prophecies in which all these things were foretold as coming to pass, and when they had seen Him ascending into heaven, and had believed, and had received power sent thence by Him upon them, and went to every race of men, they taught these things, and were called apostles. (First Apology ch. 50)
Moreover, the prophet Zechariah foretold that this same Christ would be smitten, and His disciples scattered: which also took place. For after His crucifixion, the disciples that accompanied Him were dispersed, until He rose from the dead, and persuaded them that so it had been prophesied concerning Him, that He would suffer; and being thus persuaded, they went into all the world, and taught these truths. (Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 53)
(In that first passage one might even be inclined to wonder if Justin understood not only Peter, but all the disciples denied Jesus in some way.)
There is much more I could add, with many more examples of where Justin seems to either not know about the Gospel narrative with which we are familiar, or rejected and ignored it.
Or is there something odd about the translation I am using that would settle the matter even more simply?
I am aware of the places where Justin appears to know about sayings of Jesus that seem to have some overlap with what we find in the Gospels. I am also aware that in a few particular sections of his writings he speaks of the “Memoirs of the Apostles”, and in those sections we do read a few close points of contact with our canonical Gospels. Those are, I believe, other questions that require more detailed discussion: much has been published on those questions. The example of a clash with the Gospel narrative that I have raised above is, I think, an indicator that our canonical narrative is unknown — or thought of little worth — to Justin.
Is it a satisfactory enough explanation that Justin must have known about, and preferred, some other gospel narrative, now lost to us, that related this non-canonical version of events?
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35 thoughts on “Did no-one know about the Gospels before half way through the second century?”
“Why did they even write about Jesus’ life on earth in ways that directly contradict what we read in the Gospels?”
Whatever your preferred source theory, the later Gospel authors did the same. Of course, they take much over from their sources, but they also often contradict the earlier Gospel. Likewise, the 2nd century church fathers sometimes take over what is in the gospels and they sometimes contradict it. The Gospels (which I think were written in the early 2nd century) did not yet have such an authority that Christians were bound by their content.
Details were contradicted (e.g. Resurrection appearances) and usually we can see theological motives for these. But none so totally overturned the plot structure to have the disciples deserting Christ after his crucifixion. That is huge. It supports the other indications in Justin that there was no Judas betrayal, that the Eucharist was instituted after the resurrection . . . . These sorts of deviations from the canonical narrative call for more than an appeal to the absence of canonical authority. Where do such deviations originate?
We do not know where these deviations originate from. I don’t see why that is a problem for the idea that Justin and others knew the Gospels. Why should they be bound to the gospel narrative? Were the gnostic gospels bound to the synoptic narrative?
The problem is not for Justin’s knowledge of the canonical gospels. The problem is for any model of gospel origins that works with “traditions” being a conduit from historical Jesus event to the canonical narrative.
With that I agree completely.
Yes it’s huge – “after He was crucified, even all His acquaintances forsook Him, having denied Him”. What could have provided some argument in favour of such a position – a position in contradiction to the gospel storyline? An earlier version most probably. A version of the story that would require, if the fleeing disciples were going to be added to that earlier storyline, that the fleeing could only come after the crucifixion. That earlier storyline – Slavonic Josephus.
In that storyline, the wonderworker is set free by Pilate and returns to his public activity of good works. Thus no context for fleeing disciples at that time. His later re-arrest, the 30 talents paid to Pilate by the teachers of the Law, leads to the crucifixion story. No mention in Slavonic Josephus of fleeing disciples either at the crucifixion or prior to it. Hence later storyline development had the option of where to place the fleeing disciple element. Perhaps the earliest idea about fleeing disciples was to put it after the crucifixion – which would be a better fit for the Slavonic Josephus story. Maybe that’s the version that Justin Martyr had. Later storyline developments move the fleeing disciples element to prior to the crucifixion and link it to Judas and the betrayal. (gJohn has Pilate wanting to set Jesus free; gLuke sends him to Herod for a while…)
All this is, of course, no problem for a non-historical Jesus position – it’s the Jesus historicists that need to do a re-think.
“And he had that wonder-doer brought up. And when he had instituted a trial concerning him, he perceived that he is a doer of good, but not an evildoer, nor a revolutionary, nor one who aimed at power, and set him free…..
“And he went to his accustomed place and wrought his accustomed works. And as again more folk gathered themselves together round him, then did he win glory through his works more than all. The teachers of the Law were [therefore] envenomed with envy and gave thirty talents to Pilate, in order that he should put him to death. And he, after he had taken [the money], gave them consent that they should themselves carry out their purpose. And they took him and crucified him according to the ancestral law.”
For many early Christians, the Didache was canonical. And yet here’s what it has to say about the Lord’s Supper:
(1) Now about the Eucharist. This is how to give thanks:
(2) First in connection with the cup: “We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David, your child, which you have revealed through Jesus, your child. To you be glory forever.”
(3) Then in connection with the piece [broken off the loaf]: “We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you have revealed through Jesus, your child. To you be glory forever.
(4) “As this piece [of bread] was scattered over the hills and then was brought together and made one, so let your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom. For yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.”
(5) You must not let anyone eat or drink of your Eucharist except those baptized in the Lord’s name. For in reference to this the Lord said, “Do not give what is sacred to dogs.”
Hadn’t they read Paul or the Synoptic Gospels? Didn’t they know the bread represented his body, the wine, his blood? It strikes me as very odd that the earliest reference we have — 1 Corinthians 11:23 ff. — is the most theologically advanced, or at least the closest to later orthodox doctrine.
Some parts of the Didache may well have been written without knowledge of the Gospels. Part of what you cite here may be an example (and I think Didache 16 is too), but other bits such as 9.5b (the last bit of your example) and the Lord’s prayer seem to be dependent on Matthew.
The point I was trying to make is this. On such a basic element of teaching — What does the holiest sacrament of Christianity signify? — the Didache isn’t even close.
It calls into question our assumptions about the oral tradition. Paul rarely quotes “the Lord” but in this case he explains what was taught by the founder himself on the night he was delivered over to be killed. This isn’t trivial stuff, like shifts in narrative chronology. It’s a fundamental rite that is supposed to point back to the atonement.
Agreed. Texts like the Didache (well, parts of it) and the Shepherd of Hermas point to important pre-Gospel “traditions” (not the right word, but oh well). The Shepherd does not even know of a Jesus and the baptism occurs in the name of the Lord (i.e. God).
Tim: “It calls into question our assumptions about the oral tradition. Paul rarely quotes “the Lord” but in this case he explains what was taught by the founder himself on the night he was delivered over to be killed. This isn’t trivial stuff, like shifts in narrative chronology. It’s a fundamental rite that is supposed to point back to the atonement.”
But that is only an assumption one can make if one is going along with a historical Jesus. Once one goes with a non-historical position then the gospel Jesus storyboard can be viewed as a developing story. In other words, what we have in our present gospels is the final version not the original storyline. Last Supper, atonement, theological theories; there is no reason to think these elements were all there in the original draft of the story.
The basic gospel story – preacher man crucified during time of Pilate – is an open template for developments. It is also the storyline in Slavonic Josephus. A text that contains much that would suggest it is the earliest available version of the story.
maryhelena: “The basic gospel story – preacher man crucified during time of Pilate – is an open template for developments.”
I’m having trouble thinking of any feature (basic or not) of the story believed by one set of early Christians that wasn’t denied or at least understood differently by some other set of early Christians. And this gets back to what I was saying yesterday. How can one make a convincing case that the text evidence is best explained by an historical character when the earliest writers clearly felt free to invent and embellish?
We’re expected to believe that there was a Jesus who had some followers, and almost immediately after his death the movement shattered into a thousand fragments. And they diverged not just on minor doctrinal matters, but on the big stuff.
Tim: “How can one make a convincing case that the text evidence is best explained by an historical character when the earliest writers clearly felt free to invent and embellish?”
Because they are not dealing with history but with salvation history, with an interpretation of history. The gospel text is about a created, literary figure. Consequently, invention and embellishment is part of that scenario. There is no equation, ie gospel Jesus is a symbol, a stand in, for historical person X. Remember the insight of Wells – his Galilean flesh and blood preacher was not crucified. Thus, keeping events in Galilee and Jerusalem separated. In effect, Wells has two Jesus stories. The Jesus from Galilee and the Jesus of Paul – and they meet up as it were, “fused” together, in the Jerusalem crucifixion story with Pilate – and become the gospel crucified Jesus.
Using this insight into the gospel story, a historical investigation becomes free from the constraint of looking for a crucified historical figure during the relevant time period – the time of Pilate – usually dated from 26 ce to 36 ce.
Wells, of course, has no historical evidence for his Galilean preacher figure. All he has done is provide an insight into the gospel storyline. An insight that can open up a historical investigation into early Christianity. The gospel Jesus crucifixion under Pilate is not history – it is theology, it is the dying and rising god mythology given a historical setting. Wells is upholding a historical core (albeit he has no evidence) in the form of his flesh and blood Galilean preacher, and he has historical interpretation in the form of salvation history. Which on a basic level is the position that I support: History and it’s interpretation as salvation history in the gospel story.
Tim: “We’re expected to believe that there was a Jesus who had some followers, and almost immediately after his death the movement shattered into a thousand fragments. And they diverged not just on minor doctrinal matters, but on the big stuff.”
That’s gospel Jesus stuff – history is not bound by fanciful tales…
Can we trust the New Testament?: Thoughts on the reliability of Early Christian Testimony. (2003)
By George Albert Wells
“…This Galilean Jesus was not crucified and was not believed to have been resurrected after his death. The dying and rising Christ – devoid of time and place – of the early epistles is a quite different figure and must have a different origin.
In the gospels, the two Jesus figures – the human preacher of Q and the supernatural personage of the early epistles who sojourned briefly on Earth as a man and then, rejected, returned to heaven – have been fused into one. The Galilean preacher of Q has been given a salvific death and resurrection, and these have been set not in an unspecified past (as in the early epistles), but in a historical context consonant with the date of the Galilean preaching.”
“Do not give what is sacred to dogs” – that reminds me of the passage in the Gospels where a nonbelieving woman asks Jesus to heal her children (or something), and he tells her something about how you wouldn’t feed dogs from the master’s table, and she replies that dogs can eat the scraps though, and he sees she’s right and heals her children?
Are those both references to well-known sayings about dogs that occur elsewhere in the Bible, or could one of those be responding to the other ?
Because, after all, a summary statement proves that a person doesn’t know the facts behind the summary. There’s no possible way that Justin Martyr was simply including the arrest and trials in “the crucifixion” in order to keep things simple.
As far as the lack of direct quotes or attestation by Justin Martyr, that just seems to be part of his writing style. Other Church Fathers contemporary or even prior to him–like Ignatius (c. 98-117), Polycarp (c 69- ca. 155), the Didache (early 2nd Century), and Irenaeus (late 2nd Century)–do quote extensively and directly from the Gospel accounts. Moreover, we know from Irenaeus that by the late 2nd Century, it was considered axiomatic that there were exactly four Gospel accounts:
Someone clearly needs to do their homework.
Saying the disciples fled after Jesus’ crucifixion is hardly a summary of anything we find in the canonical gospels.
The reason I did not refer to Irenaeus is becuase he is generally considered to have written after Justin Martyr and in the latter half of the second century.
I am very aware — and have written quite a bit on it in years past — on Irenaus’s case for the four gospels we have in our canon today.
Irenaeus is also an important benchmark for any discussion about the dating of Acts.
I did ask in my post if anyone knows if the table by Glenn Davis is a fair indicator of the links between Ignatius and Polycarp and the canonical gospels. Please do let me know what it is missing and what is the evidence that these writings knew of our canonical gospel narratives of Jesus.
I have done my homework but if I got the answers wrong then I would ask the teacher to be patient and explain my error.
There has been a lot of scholarship on whether Ignatius knew at least Matthew, and much of that literature I have found to be negative. The commentary by William Schoedel is one example, and I would also point to Brown, “The Gospel of Ignatius of Antioch”, pp. 28-9; Wenham, “The Jesus Tradition Outside the Gospels”, pp. 233-68; and others. Basically there have been scholars such as Helmut Koester in the 1950s that have cast doubt on Ignatius knowing the Gospels and usually figuring Ignatius knew either their written source material or oral traditions. I’m not sure where the consensus is, but it seems the table from Glenn Davis is very maximalist.
As for Acts, Pervo’s “Dating Acts” includes discussion on Polycarp citing this document. Pervo is extremely scholarly, so even if you disagree with him you will have a boat-load of sources.
Hope that all helps.
Thanks, Gilgamesh. I have also discussed in some detail the dating Acts in my series of posts (aboutu six altogether) on Tyson’s book “Marcion and Luke-Acts”, and addressed some arguments in other posts from Pervo’s Dating Acts.
Polycarp can easily be considered a collage of various “canonical” phrases and this has to raise questions about its self-testimony as to provenance.
I’m currently trying to get back to relatively recent publication arguing for a very late date for Ignatius, too.
The “cross reference table” compiled by Glenn Davis seems flawed. For example, few scholars would insist that Ignatius and Polycarp drew upon Acts. According to Townsend (“The Date of Luke-Acts”), it is not before the last decades of the second century (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.13.3; 3.15.1) that one finds undisputed traces of Acts.
Berding (Polycarp and Paul, 2002) writes that, in his Letter to the Philippians, Polycarp “almost certainly” drew upon Matthew, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Timothy, 1 Peter and 1 John. However, Hartog (Polycarp and the New Testament, 2002) omits Matthew, 2 Corinthians, 2 Timothy, and 1 John from the list. Hence, it cannot be taken for granted that Polycarp drew upon the gospels.
In any case, Ignatius, Polycarp, 1 Clement, and the Didache cannot be used as evidence that the gospels predate the second century. Over the past 30 years, the authenticity of the seven “genuine” Ignatian letters has been attacked by several scholars (Hübner; Joly; Lechner; Schmithals; Zwierlein), according to whom a date before 160 CE seems improbable. Their arguments are more or less impossible to disprove and should not be summarily discarded. Since Polycarp and Ignatius are witnesses of each other, Polycarp’s letter, too, should be regarded as pseudepigraphical. With regards to 1 Clement, numismatic evidence and quotations from Dio Chrysostom’s 40th oration reveal that the letter cannot have been written earlier than towards the middle of the second century (see Zwierlein, Petrus in Rom, 2010). The Didache survives in a manuscript dating from 1056 CE and cannot be dated with any certainty.
It is sometimes claimed that Justin Martyr used Luke, but there are other possibilities. The saying in question (Luke 23:46) ultimately comes from Psalm 30:6 (LXX = RSV 31:5).
For anyone new to my arguments I refer again to my table comparing Justin’s knowledge of narrative gospel elements to the canonical and other gospels at http://vridar.info/xorigins/justinnarr.htm
It is badly in need of updating and I have seen a few errors in it, but it still gives some overview of links between Justin’s gospel details and those found in the Gospel of Peter and Protevangelium of James as well as the canonical gospels.
The reason I like to use Glenn Davis’s table is because it is, as Gilgamesh points out, so “maximalist”. If the evidence it points to is the best we have for early second century knowledge of the gospel narrative then we can say we have precious little.
The knowledge of Matthew’s sayings is another argument. Sayings are not narrative. But I can’t detail here all the arguments over how many of the sayings alluded to debatable as deriving from some other “source/s” that were themselves later incorporated into Matthew.
Thanks for posting the link to the comprehensible table on Justin Martyr’s Gospel Narrative.
Speaking about Ignatius and the gospels, there is a discussion on Ignatius and the New Testament in Édouard Massaux, The influence of the Gospel of Saint Matthew on Christian Literature before Saint Irenaeus: Book 1 — The First Ecclesiastical Writers (trans. Norman J. Belval and Suzanne Hecht; Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1990), pp. 85-122.
With regards to 1 Clement, numismatic evidence and quotations from Dio Chrysostom’s 40th oration reveal that the letter cannot have been written earlier than towards the middle of the second century (see Zwierlein, Petrus in Rom, 2010).
Interesting. Can you summarize this argument? It seems your citation is to a work in German.
Yes, Otto Zwierlein is a German professor emeritus of Latin.
In 1 Clement 25, the phoenix is used as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection. Zwierlein (Petrus in Rom: Die literarischen Zeugnisse, De Gruyter, 2010) notes that it was Hadrian who, for the first time in Roman history, issued coins depicting the phoenix. Here, too, the symbolism is related to death and new life, that is, the apotheosis of Divus Traianus. Similar coins were issued by Antoninus Pius during the years 137-143, and by Marcus Aurelius. Zwierlein (pp. 318-319) argues that the symbolism expressed on these coins is reflected in 1 Clement 25.
Zwierlein continues on the following pages by discussing the numerous parallels between 1 Clement and the 1st and 40th orations by Dio Chrysostom. In his 40th oration, Dio addresses a quarrel between Prusa, his hometown, and its near neighbour, Apameia. The quarrel discussed by Dio parallels the internal quarrel described in 1 Clement. In both cases, the harmony of the cosmos is set as an example before the quarrelling parties, who are told to strive for unity. The “dance of the stars” is mentioned in both documents:
“Day and night accomplish the course assigned to them by Him, without hindrance one to another. The sun and the moon and the dancing stars according to His appointment circle in harmony within the bounds assigned to them, without any swerving aside” (1 Clement 20:2-3).
“For example, do you not observe how the sun gives place to night… And again, the ceaseless circling dance of the planets, which never get in each other’s way?” (Dio, Or. 40.38-39).
The following parallel, too, is striking:
“Yea, the smallest of living things come together in concord and peace” (1 Clement 20:10).
“Yet the ants, although they go about in such swarms, never bother one another, but quite amicably meet and pass and assist each other” (Dio, Or. 40.32).
For a discussion in terms of Greek words, see Zwierlein’s book, Part D.
I appreciate it.
“Yet the ants, although they go about in such swarms, never bother one another, but quite amicably meet and pass and assist each other” (Dio, Or. 40.32).
Unless they’re going to war with their neighbors of course…
Dear Rabbi Michael Bugg,
Let me see if I have this right.
1. When Justin Martyr says the disciples deserted Jesus after the crucifixion, he means before, because he’s “summarizing.” He could have said at his arrest,” but that would have been too many words.
2. When non-apologists ask why so many times early church fathers deviated from well-known sayings and events from the gospels and the epistles, we’re “ignorant.” (See my question about the Didache and the true meaning of the Eucharist above, for still more ignorance.)
3. Asking why early church fathers often flubbed basic details in the gospels is tantamount to trying to prove “that the Gospels didn’t exist until someone else quoted them.” That’s pretty close to not even wrong. Did you miss the part where Neil offered the following possibilities:
a. He was not aware of our canonical gospels, but knew some different gospel (oral tradition?).
b. He was aware of our canonical gospels, but knew a different gospel that he preferred.
Of course, if we can contort our brains to harmonize the differences — e.g., after means before, because he’s summarizing — then we have a third option for apologists:
c. He knew our canonical gospels, liked to summarize them in his own quirky way, and any apparent differences we think we see stem from a lack of creativity, or perhaps insufficient blind faith, on our part.
I thought that the dialog with Trypho here in Justin was older than his apologetic works, perhaps by about 20 years. In which case, perhaps we can see the development of the gospel story in the early part of the 2nd century. However, I cannot remember a source to back me up about the dating of Justin’s works.
From what I recall the internal evidence is used for the relative dating these works. In Trypho we read of the great calamity that had recently befallen the Jews and this is taken as a reference to the the Bar Kochba war under Hadrian. The Apology is addressed to the next emperor Antoninus Pius.
This is a bit off topic to the post, but is Trypho a real person or a foil created by Justin? My knowledge of 2nd century exegesis and debating techniques is pretty limited, but I have trouble believing that any devout Jew worth his salt would allow the outrageous liberties Justin takes with supposed prophesies from the Hebrew Bible. Granted, I don’t share the 2nd century worldview, and the appeal to prophesy was obviously a rhetorical biggie for early Christians, but even so… At one point Justin seems to say that the horn of a unicorn symbolised the upright beam of a cross (dialogue with Trypho, chapter XCI). Hmmmm.
I guess in some way, linking Jesus with a creature that does not and has never existed is exquisitely apt. Perhaps a sly nod to mythicism? 🙂
Trypho does make a very obliging dialogue partner allowing Justin to expound everything he wishes to say. For our purposes he is an entirely literary figure. Whether there was also a real Trypho whom Justin ever knew we have no way of knowing.
Always surprised that Justin doesn’t seem to know anything about Paul. Justin and Paul would seem ideal bedfellows, or am I missing something?
One possible reason is that Paul was (as we know from Tertullian and Irenaeus) The Apostle for Marcion, and Justin did complain about Marcion’s heresy.
But that said, there are some passages in Justin that strangely sounding like paraphrases of some portions of Paul’s letters (ditto for John). So it’s a complex question. I have read a reasonable argument that the Memoirs of the Apostles paragraphs were later insertions into Justin (I’m not saying I necessarily agree with them — I still work with them as part of his original text) and that Justin may have been a favourite repository for later more “orthodox” sounding additions in the decades after his own time. But I don’t know how strong these arguments can be made — they will probably remain at suspicion-level only.
So if these Pauline-sounding passages are really original in Justin, it does raise some interesting questions.
I don’t think that Justin Martyr’s statements contradict the gospels, which indicate that the disciples did not expect Jesus to be arrested and crucified or that he would arise from the dead.
So, they dispersed. Some dispersed immediately after the arrest. Others perhaps did not even know he had been arrested and so did not disperse until after the crucifixion. The gospels don’t explain what all the disciples did or exactly when they did it. None of them understood the situation until after the resurrected Jesus appeared to them.
One thought that occurs to me is that the story indicates that all the disciples were ignorant about the immediate future. That ignorance should have spoiled the disciples’ credibility when they subsequently taught the public that Jesus would return to Earth and judge all the living and the dead and so forth.
It seems to me that the very first Christians — Simon Peter and his followers — could have spread their religion successfully only if they presented themselves as possessing supernatural, mystical knowledge. They had experienced a mystical vision that the Son of God had descended from Heaven and experienced death and resurrection. This vision confirmed that God the Father loved human beings and sympathized with their sufferings.
The very first Christians were not part of the original story about Jesus. They did not claim that they had followed Jesus around for a couple of years and had participated in the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
As the story evolved, the story moved onto Earth and the first, mystical Christians moved into the narrative. They became buffoonish disciples who eventually dispersed as Jesus was arrested and crucified.
By the time the story had evolved in that manner, the credibility of the first, mystical Christians no longer was important. Indeed, the orginal story told by the first, mystical Christians already had been rejected and replaced.