Christ among the Messiahs — Part 7

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Part 6 . . . .

The preceding posts have outlined Matthew Novenson’s argument that Paul’s concept of Christ (as expressed throughout his epistles) was entirely consistent with “the formal conventions of ancient Jewish Messiah language” that we would expect in any messianic literature of his era.

There are a few passages, however, that have been used to argue that Paul’s idea of Christ “demurred from, repudiated or even polemicized against” the Jewish theological notion of Messiah. Novenson rejects these interpretations and argues that even in these passages Paul uses χριστός within the range of conventional Jewish understanding of the Messiah.

1 Corinthians 1:23 “We Preach a Crucified Christ”

For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:

But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

Recent scholarly interpretation has generally viewed Christ here as “a meaning-less proper name” and hence the common translation as above, “Christ crucified”. An alternative translation that Novenson deploys is “a crucified Christ“. That definitely has a different ring to it. Earlier scholarship tended to a different view, Novenson explains. Then,

this passage was an important source for the modern distinction between “the Jewish messiah” and “the Christian messiah.” About this interpretive tradition Morton Smith writes, “This verse has been made the hair on which to hang a mountain of nonsense about Jewish resistance to the substitution of a spiritual Saviour for a military Messiah.” The point is hyperbolically put, but it is not inaccurate. (pp. 161-162)

Now that’s interesting (at least for me). I have long understood that the Christians radically revised the very notion of “messiah” into something unrecognizable alongside orthodox Jewish concepts. The essential difference between Judaism and Christianity hung very largely upon Christians substituting a spiritual Saviour for a military Messiah. But Novenson is implying here that this was not the way Paul saw it. The opposing messianic concepts, he is suggesting, are later constructs that were foreign to the earliest Christians, even as expressed in Paul’s epistles:

Paul says that the “crucified Christ” whom he preaches is a scandal to Jews, but he supplies no contrast term, no opposite “Jewish Christ” as a foil for his own Christ. Still less is there any hint of a contrast here between a “spiritual” Christian messiah and a “political” Jewish one. (p. 162)

Even as late as Justin Martyr (mid second century) we find no Christian consciousness of an antithetical Christ who was not crucified. So in the Dialogue with Trypho Justin has his Jewish interlocutor say:

and further, resting your hopes on a man that was crucified, you yet expect to obtain some good thing from God, while you do not obey His commandments. (Trypho, 10:3)

The antithesis is between Christians who do not keep the Law and Jews who do — not over the nature of a messiah.

Novenson points to an earlier verse, 1:18, to clinch his argument that a separate “Jewish messiah” is nowhere even an implicit character in the thinking of Paul in this chapter:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

This verse likewise speaks of the “power of God”, “foolishness” and the “cross”. But note the difference: in place of “Christ crucified” it has “the message of the cross”. For Paul, “the message of the cross” is the crucified Christ. Another significant difference is that 1:18 does not identify the group responsive to the gospel as Christians and those who reject the message as Jews. Rather, the different groups are identified as those who are called and those who are perishing. The contrast is not primarily between Christian beliefs and Jewish beliefs and practices, but primarily between those who respond and those who don’t regardless of ethnic group.

In short, “the Jewish messiah” of modern scholarship is not a character in 1 Cor 1:22-24. (p. 162)

So where does all this lead us?

Paul does not conceptualize an equal and opposite Jewish counterpart to his crucified messiah. Nonetheless he does imply that being crucified was not a typical duty in the messiah’s job-description.

So what was it about a messiah being crucified that was a scandal or stumblingblock to the Jews?

Justin’s Jew, Trypho, is made to say:

for we know that He (the Messiah) should suffer and be led as a sheep. But prove to us whether He must be crucified and die so disgracefully and so dishonourably by the death cursed in the law. For we cannot bring ourselves even to think of this. (90:1)

N. T. Wright agrees with Trypho: Jews could conceive of a messiah dying according to the “prophecy” of Isaiah, but they could not conceive of a death that involved a curse (Deut. 27:26) — such as being hung from a tree. That is, the scandal was not in the death of a messiah but in the shameful manner of his death.

Paula Fredriksen argues the offence of Paul’s message was not in the fact of the messiah’s crucifixion — a crucified messiah was obviously conceivable among Jews since “Jews could and did conceive it” — but in the fact that the world was not ostensibly delivered to enter a new age afterwards. Whether crucified or not, if the promise of the Messianic age were not visible then the messiah had not come.

Alan Segal argued that a crucified messiah, being a curse according to the law, could not therefore usher in the blessings of national deliverance the messiah was expected to bring. Paul turned this around by insisting that Jesus was no longer cursed since he had been resurrected and was able to turn the curse into a fulfilment of the greater blessings promised through Abraham. (This is my own summary of Segal’s argument; Novenson scarcely skims the surface of it.)

Novenson suggests that all of these proposals are plausible and perhaps some Jews did object to Paul’s message for such reasons.

All of them, however, are speculative in the sense that they claim more for 1 Cor 1:22-24 than Paul himself says. (p. 163)

(One accustomed to hearing from professors of the New Testament that argument that no Jew would have invented a crucified or dying messiah because such a messiah was by definition not a messiah at all may be a little surprised to see here Novenson cite prominent scholars who indicate that such an argument is invalid. Another way of looking at this is to recall Couchoud’s argument that Paul’s Christ was distinct from other Christs being preached by other Christian apostles. See War of the Heavenly Christs and John’s Christ Nemesis of Paul’s.)

So though Paul preached contrary to other views of the messiah that the messiah was to be crucified, his notion of the messiah was itself still all part and parcel of general Jewish understanding. Paul was “eccentric” in preaching that the messiah underwent a death by means of a cursed crucifixion, but his contemporaries nonetheless understood what he meant by messiah nonetheless. If he pushed the boundaries of the term he did not break them.

(In my own way of looking at it, Paul was preaching that it was by means of crucifixion and resurrection that the messiah conquered the real and ultimate enemies of the Jews and all mankind, and chose Paul as his apostle to garner in the full number of gentiles to be subject to his rule. This was about as messianic as one could get and conformed with Second Temple schismatic and sectarian understandings of the “messiah”.)

2 Cor 5:16-17 “We No Longer Know Christ according to the Flesh”

Some scholars, including Baur, have interpreted “Christ according to the flesh” to mean that the old Jewish idea of a worldly and political messiah was made obsolete by Paul’s spiritual messiah. The passage is thus considered a polemic against such a warlike Jewish messiah.

Others have interpreted the passage to mean that we no longer have an interest in the “fleshly” or worldly aspect of Jesus, such as his Jewishness. (This interpretation is often used to explain Paul’s silence on the life and teachings of the Galilean Jesus.)

All such interpretations run aground, however, on the observation that the prepositional phrase [kata sarka = according to the flesh] is, in fact, not adjectival but adverbial, that it modifies not the noun [Christ], but rather the verb [egnokamen = know]. As early as the 1920s, some interpreters recognized this and registered a minority report. Later in the twentieth century, when the “problem of Paul and Jesus” was no longer such a dominant motif in research, what had been a minority report gradually gained traction in mainstream interpretation. (p. 166)

So the Greek passage does not mean “we knew Christ-according-to-the-flesh” but “we knew Christ in a fleshly way”. The preceding verse likewise says, “From now on let us not know anyone in a fleshly way.” (Incidentally, it might be of interest to some to note that this is how Earl Doherty explained the Greek term on pages 172-3 in JNGNM and also with reference to its broader context here. Paul, for example, knew about Christ differently before and after his conversion.)

So this verse does not by any means repudiate the conventional Jewish understandings of messiah as a theological category, Novenson concludes.

Rom 1:3-4 “From the Seed of David according to the Flesh”

Many would regard this introductory statement in Paul’s letter to the Romans as clear evidence that Paul thought of Christ as a Messiah within conventional Jewish understanding, but some have seen Paul’s use of “according to the flesh” as a criticism of the Jewish view of Messiah. Paul, they say, is arguing for a new spiritual Christ and a rejection of anything the Jews thought essentially characterized the Messiah.

Novenson disagrees with this minority criticism and argues that “kata sarka” (according to the flesh) “when used in conjunction with a mention of an ancestor or ancestral people as it is in Rom 1:3, simply means ‘genealogically.'” (p. 169)

Therefore, [“from the seed of David according to the flesh”] simply expresses Jesus’ familial descent from David; it does not imply any value judgment thereon.

(Earl Doherty, many readers know, has a different take on this. He argues that “according to the flesh” is an unnecessary addition to the sentence if Paul was really conveying the idea of a physical genetic relationship to David, and that this one of some other indicators that Paul is speaking of a mystical relationship.

Roger Parvus has argued, I think along with Couchoud if I recall correctly, that while Paul’s Christ was a heavenly figure, he did for a brief moment (“a few hours”) descend to earth solely for the purpose of being crucified [in the flesh?].– (I have bracketed ‘in the flesh’ and added a question mark since initially writing this:  Roger has posted a clarification of his view — see comments below.)

Others, such as Herman Detering (and myself) have suggested the passage is an interpolation.)

Another facet of the scholarly attention devoted to this passage Novenson addresses is whether or not it truly reflects Paul’s thinking. Some, including Novenson, think the passage is a pre-Pauline tradition incorporated into the letter. The reasons, in brief, focus around the uniqueness of the explicit association of Jesus with David (Novenson, as we have seen, disagrees with this as a reason since he has argued for many David-Christ associations in Paul) and with the expression “spirit of holiness” (meaning “holy spirit”) in the same passage. But even if the passage predated Paul, Paul’s use of it here carries no hint of sarcasm or polemic and can still be taken to reflect Paul’s own views of Christ.


First, in these and other passages, Paul’s prose does all that we normally expect any ancient Jewish or Christian text to do to count as a messiah text. He writes at length and in detail about a character whom he designates with the Septuagintal word χριστός, and he clarifies what he means by this polysemous term in the customary way — by citing and alluding to certain scriptural source texts rather than others. Paul’s letters meet all of the pertinent criteria for early Jewish messiah language. (p. 172)

(I think I have failed to stress this critical point enough in my previous posts on Novenson’s argument — that Paul argues for his view of Christ from core texts just as other Jews writing about their views of a messiah likewise did.)

Second, contrary to one influential strand in the history of interpretation, Paul does not repudiate messiahship as a theological category. The “crucified messiah” whom Paul preaches in 1 Cor 1:23 is an offense to some Jews not because he is a non- or an anti- or a supra-messiah but because he is a crucified messiah, neither more nor less. By the same token, when Paul writes that “we no longer know Christ according to the flesh” (2 Cor 5:16), he is commenting on an eschatological change in the mode of human knowing, not a philosophical change of mind from a messianic Christology to a nonmessianic one. (p. 172)

Novenson concludes that Paul’s letters must be read as samples of early Jewish messiah texts because they do not repudiate messiahship as a theological category and because their prose meets all the criteria for messiah language.

Third, as with other messiah texts, it is possible to trace the particular contours of Paul’s messianism by noting which scriptural source texts he cites and what the logic is by which he interprets them. In Paul’s case, his scriptural source texts are overwhelmingly associated with the house of David rather than, say, the Aaronic priesthood or Daniel’s visions (but cf. Dan 7:27 and 1 Cor 15:24). This is not insignificant since other messiah texts, even Christian ones, go in quite different directions. (p. 173)

So in Paul we find Paul using 2 Sam 7:12 and Ps 110:1 — passages also cited frequently in other Jewish and Christian messianic works.

But from the set pool of messiah texts (listed in earlier posts) Paul shows a special affinity for those that stress the Davidic King ruling the Gentile nations: Isa 11:10; 2 Sam 22=Ps 18). This bias probably relates to Paul’s zeal for his own gentile mission.

Paul sometimes conflates messianic Davidic tradition texts with nonmessianic texts, such as Gen 17:7 in Gal 3:16.

In all of the above Matthew Novenson believes Paul’s letters should be read as “invaluable examples of messiah language in ancient Judaism.” (p. 173)

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Christ among the Messiahs — Part 7”

  1. Well done, Neil, great series re Matthew Novenson’s book.

    So………….” In all of the above Matthew Novenson believes Paul’s letters should be read as “invaluable examples of messiah language in ancient Judaism.” (p. 173)

    Paul the ultimate messianist?

    Without getting too in depth with what that idea would involve re the ahistoricist/mythicist perspective, perhaps one point could do with being considered.

    If, for the sake of argument, Paul had some flesh and blood figure in mind re his messianic musings, how would that position impact upon his writing? Yes, we know that Paul’s writing does not reflect an interest in the earthly details of his messianic figure. But to assume, as many mythicists seem to do, that Paul has no interest in a flesh and blood messianic figure, is without any substantial foundation or logic. Novenson’s book is highlighting Jewish messianic ideals – ideals he finds within Paul’s very Jewish use of the messianic concept.

    So, Paul has made a shift. Paul’s focus is ‘christ crucified’ and resurrection. In other words, Paul’s focus is an interpretation of a ‘christ crucified’. An interpretation; a spiritual or philosophical interpretation of crucifixion. Logically, a human, flesh and blood, crucifixion has no salvation potential. It is a dead end. But one can transfer that flesh and blood non-value crucifixion, transfer it metaphorically, to a new spiritual or intellectual/philosophical context. A new context where life, death, and rebirth – of ideas – has supreme ‘salvation’ value. And all of that transference does not negate the reality that a flesh and blood crucifixion, an immoral execution, of a flesh and blood messiah figure mattered to Paul.

    The question is what crucified or executed, historical, Jewish, figure was relevant for Paul. And that brings up an important fact that is often not considered: Whether Paul has in mind a King or a carpenter, he has to face the problem of how to proceed with his new spiritual philosophy/theology and not have it unduly restricted by Jewish echoes from the past. Paul’s philosophy revolves around neither Jew nor Gentile – all are one in Christ. His problem is earthly Jerusalem – historical realities. Jewish messianic realities.

    Indeed, Paul could, and did in his writing, side-step historical realities. But if there was a flesh and blood messianic figure, a figure that provided Paul with a basis for his interpretations of the messianic ideals, then more would be involved, more would be necessary, than Paul not writing about such a figure. Such a figure would be known, would be talked about. Numbers are not the focus here – all it takes is a few who hold a person in such esteem. Some will follow Paul – others preach a different Christ figure. Paul’s theories win out. Memories of the past fade – and leave us today with only Paul’s theories. Theories without a base, in his writing, in historical realities.

    While memories do indeed fade and the past becomes a blur – Paul could not, not knowing how far his theories would run, rely upon fading memories. Other people could write history books – thus, potentially, able to identify historical figures that could have been perceived, in Jewish messianic and hence Christian theories, as being important figures. To counter that threat Jewish history had to become, in part, pseudo-history. The door to the past, the relevant Jewish historical past, needed to be closed.

    Paul’s philosophical/theological story about a crucified Christ figure, the gospel pseudo historical story about a crucified JC figure, are both stories that require that the door to Jewish history be closed. Neither story would be able to function as ‘history’ when real, actual, Jewish history is known.

    And the job of cooking the books re Jewish history – that job fell to the Josephan writer. A writer who, as modern scholarship is now demonstrating, was a prophetic historian.

    (Dreams and Dream Reports in the Writing of Josephus, A Traditio-Historical Analysis: Robert Karl Gnuse.
    Prophetic Figures in Late Second Temple Jewish Palestine: The Evidence From Josephus: Rebecca Gray)

    No, no conspiracy here. What is here is an attempt to take forward philosophical ideas; intellectual evolution. Ideas move on and only take the minimum of past ideas with them. Jewish history, while relevant to the messianic JC story, and Paul’s messianic philosophy, was not the way forward. If the relevant historical Jewish figures were retained as important – where would we be today? These figures served their time in history and are only relevant for us today if we are searching for early Christian origins. Christianity does not need to focus on them. National, or ethnic identity, has no place in Christian theology/philosophy. While it was indeed the root from which Christianity sprung – it’s in the lofty philosophical branch where Christianity lives. ……..though perhaps it needs to come down to earth occasionally…..;-)

    If it’s early Christian history, a history rooted in Jewish history, that we are seeking – then the Josephan writer has to be put in the dock! Interpretations of Paul, interpretations of Paul’s interpretations of a crucified Christ figure, are never going to produce a breakthrough in searching for early christian origins.

    (just for the record – I’m a ahistoricist/mythicist – the gospel JC story is pseudo-history)

  2. Neil wrote:

    Roger Parvus has argued… that while Paul’s Christ was a heavenly figure, he did for a brief moment (“a few hours”) descend to earth solely for the purpose of being crucified in the flesh.

    Just to clarify: I don’t think the original myth was clear about whether “in the likeness of man” entailed flesh or not.

    I think that in the original myth the Son of God descended to earth in the likeness of man for the purpose of being crucified. He was on earth only long enough to switch places with a failed messiah who was being led out for crucifixion, and to be crucified and buried in that man’s stead. The Son of God’s aim in surreptitiously descending and switching places with the failed messiah was to deceive the “rulers of this world” (1 Cor 2:8) into unjustly killing him, thereby winning from them man’s freedom.

    The original myth contained no analysis of what precisely was entailed by being “in the likeness of man”. Simon of Samaria, because of his negative view of the material world and flesh, interpreted the myth in line with his own view. Thus for him the Son’s “likeness” was only a semblance or appearance of being a man. He did not really take flesh to himself, and didn’t really become a man.

    When the proto-orthodox saw how Simon was using the myth to disparage the material world, they responded by claiming that “likeness” meant “just like” man. That is, since man is made of flesh, the Son had to take flesh in order to become just like a man.

    I think the author of the letter to the Hebrews was proto-orthodox and his letter was a sustained argument against Simonian beliefs about the world, the flesh, the Law and sin. It is at the beginning of the letter that he counters the Simonian view of the flesh. In essence he says: The Son came to save men, not angels. Men, unlike angels, have flesh. So the Son must have had flesh.

    Note that when Hebrews was written, a gospel had not yet been written (or at least was not yet known outside Simonian circles) that had a wandering, teaching, miracle-working Jesus. So Hebrews engages only with the original myth of the descending Son of God. That is why a teaching, miracle-working Jesus is absent from it.

  3. Neil, this is a fascinating and insightful series you are providing on mythicist Christology – thank you.

    My reading of Paul’s ‘Christ crucified’ is astrotheological and political. The cross is a cosmic symbol, with the four corners of the sky (Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, Aquarius) marking the four turning points of the path of the sun around the seasons, the cardinal points of the compass. This observable cosmology provides the basis for the four living creatures in Ezekiel and Revelation, and the four symbols of the Evangelists. Connection to God involves understanding of the nature of time as seen in the slow visible movement of the heavens. So we see the daily, annual and precessional cycles of this celestial cross as indicating the connection between time and eternity, as intimated by Plato in the Timaeus. Symbolically, the anointing of a saviour (the Christing of a Jesus) involves the sense of unity between these vast natural cross cycles and human vision of reality.

    However, for Paul, Christ is crucified. What can this mean against such a cosmic vision? The cross as used as a political torture weapon is the ultimate symbol of separation – of body from soul, of prophet from community, of ideology from reality. The wielders of the political cross used it to spread terror and disunity, replacing any thought of a Kingdom of God with the definite power of a Kingdom of Man. The connector is separated.

    Eschatologically, Jesus Christ the anointed saviour is the avatar of a new age. For the ancient observable cosmology, as intimated in the Timaeus, in Daniel, and hidden throughout the New Testament, this eschatological cosmology was directly linked to observation of the slow movement of the heavens, with the sun, symbol of divinity, beginning its annual course in a new sign for each new age. So Moses and Joshua symbolised the shift from the age of the golden calf (Taurus) to the ram horn (Aries), and the Jesus Christ imagined in the New Testament symbolised the shift from the lamb who was slain (Aries) to the bringer of universal abundance in loaves and fishes (the Pisces-Virgo axis). This is constellational myth, with the story readily visible in the night sky just as Perseus and Andromeda are visible.

    But the problem at the dawn of the Common Era was that instead of a salvific connection to cosmic divinity, the world was experiencing violent separation, the construction of degraded, corrupt empires of exploitation. Instead of the anointed saviour being able to explain the connection between earth and heaven, he was despised and rejected, as Isaiah predicted. Christ, the anointed connection between earth and heaven, was crucified, with the cosmic vision subjected to the power of an alienated and ignorant military dictatorship. The intense trauma and scale of crucifixion as a method of cultural genocide, as attested by Josephus, made it fitting as a symbol of separation, alienation, degradation and Satan triumphant. Instead of a saving and atoning connection to the cosmos, humanity was subjected to the power of futility.

    The cosmic eschatology in the Bible suggests that the Christ of the Age of Pisces was an imaginary spirit. In terms of ancient observation of the sky, astronomers could readily see that the spring point, the position of the sun at the beginning of the natural year, moved across the first of the two fishes of Pisces in the decade beginning 20 AD, continuing its slow rate of progress around the heavenly cross of one degree per human lifetime. This observation marks the time of Christ as the beginning and end, the alpha and omega moment of a shift of ages and of great years. The secret Gnostic seers conducted a ‘What if?’ analysis, asking what a messiah would be like if he arrived in their suffering world. The gradual evolution of the incarnate Jesus provides the answer. The initial ‘Christ crucified’ of Paul opened the fertile creative question of how and where this cosmic Christ lived and died, and the Gospels, Mark’s work of brilliant creative imagination, were the result.

    Part of this story is the eschatological idea that the Christ of the Age of Pisces was imagined to provide a message that the world would not be able to understand until the next turn of the cosmic wheel, the now dawning Age of Aquarius. With the Age of Pisces representing the nadir of the fall from grace, we can see Christ as the representative of the Golden Age in the midst of the Iron Age. The New Testament explains an ethic of salvation that seems otherworldly, but we are now entering a global age where key Christian themes – the last shall be first, the meek shall inherit the earth – are becoming necessary for global transformation.

    Paul discusses themes relating to this cosmic eschatology in Romans 8:18ff: “the sufferings of this present time [the power of Rome] are not worthy to be compared with the glory which will be revealed toward us [the future rule of Christ]. For the creation waits with eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed [the cosmos shows a natural plan for human redemption]. For the creation was subjected to vanity [ignorant empires are allowed to rule], not of its own will, but because of him who subjected it [as part of a vast natural cycle], in hope that the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of decay [corruption, ignorance, violence] into the liberty of the glory of the children of God [that the message of divine cosmic connection in Christ will triumph]. For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now. [The cosmic Christ suffers symbolic crucifixion].

    1. Hi Robert,

      The series is not about mythicist christology. Matthew Novenson is by no means a mythicist. It is about the way Paul understood “messianism” or the concept of a messiah and how his understanding fits with the way his contemporaries spoke about a messiah — of whatever flavour they preferred. I do think the thesis has implications for explanations of Christian origins, but those views are my own extrapolations and I don’t think I really covered these in the series.

      As for the astrotheological explanation I am afraid you lost me with your second sentence: what documentary evidence do we have that the cross was a cosmic symbol marking the four cardinal constellations? Who held this as a symbol? Paul? the author of the Gospel of Mark? My understanding of the role of the cross in Christian iconography is that it was a relatively late arrival. Earliest Christian art did not feature it. And the New Testament is as likely to speak of a tree as it is of a cross.

      I enjoy working with the textual evidence and I have much more to learn about all that is available, but I have not encountered clear evidence for “astrotheological” interpretations such as the ones you are advancing here.

      I have been intrigued by Ulansey’s exploration of the astronomical-astrological influences underlying Mithraism, but I have never seen anything similar in relation to Christian origins that is more than speculative. There may be archetypal or structural correspondences between some of the Christian myths and others, but these need to be demonstrated and not just assumed. For example the 12 apostles may represent the 12 (or was it 13?) signs of the zodiac but there is a stronger case (stronger because clearly supportable by evidence at hand) that they represented a new Israel (there is evidence that their number 12 was a late development anyway and not found in the earliest versions of the gospels) and in turn that the 12 tribes of Israel were a borrowing from Greek political writings. (I know, I’m a “minimalist” here and working with what I think is the likelihood that the literature of Israel was a creation of the Persian and Hellenistic eras.)

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