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Jesus as God in the Synoptics: A Blast From the Past

I sometimes get asked how my research in one book or another has led me to change my views about something important.  Here is a post from four years ago today, where I explain how I changed my mind about something rather significant in the Gospels.  Do Matthew, Mark, Luke consider Jesus to be God?  I always thought the answer was a decided no (unlike the Gospel of John).  In doing my research for my book How Jesus Became God, I ended up realizing I was probably wrong.  Here’s how I explained it all back then.


This, I believe, will be my final post on an issue that changed my mind about while doing the research for How Jesus Became God.   This last one is a big one – for me, at least.   And it’s not one that I develop at length in the book in any one place, since it covers a span of material.   Here’s the deal:

Until a year ago I would have said – and frequently did say, in the classroom, in public lectures, and in my writings – that Jesus is portrayed as God in the Gospel of John but not, definitely not, in the other Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.   I would point out that only in John did Jesus say such things as “Before Abraham, I am” (8:58; taking upon himself the name of God, as given to Moses in Exodus 3); his Jewish opponents knew full well what he was saying: they take up stones to stone him.   Later he says “I and the Father are one” (10:30)  Again, the Jews break out the stones.  Later he tells his disciples, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father”  (14:9).  And in a later prayer to God he asks him to “glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world was created” (17:5).

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  1. Avatar
    francis  April 13, 2018

    Dr Ehrman: I think it is the same today. All people have a different idea as to what/who god is. I personally think all of this is superstition. 2000 years ago humanity had no clue that bacteria and other assorted creatures (what they called demons) were living inside them causing sickness,

  2. ronaldus67
    ronaldus67  April 13, 2018

    Would you still agree there is a certain development in his devinety related to time in the various gospels?
    In the gospel of John Jesus seems much more devine compared to Mark that was written probably 30 to 40 years earlier.
    Also the miracles in John seem more spectaculair. Take the raising of Lazarus (that cannot be found in the Synoptics).

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2018

      Yes indeed, I discuss all this in my book How Jesus Became God.

  3. Avatar
    flshrP  April 13, 2018

    I think that your divine adoption theory is pretty weak. After all, I learned from reading your books that the appellation “Son of God” was applied to King David and his successors without anyone believing that David was a divine being. And wasn’t the entire nation of Israel called “Sons of God”? This entire idea of divine humans by birth or adoption in pagan mythology and in the Bible has always smacked of magical thinking of the type taught at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It reduces the Bible to the level of comic book superheroes. It’s hard enough to handle such ridiculousness as talking snakes and zombies in Matthew. Doesn’t this all sound made up to you?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2018

      I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re asking. You might want to read my book to see the evidence that they saw him as something more than human.

      • Avatar
        VirtualAlex  April 18, 2018

        But didn’t he become the Son of God, not God? Your title, How Jesus became God (capital G) is a bit misleading as I do not see that Matthew, Mark and Luke at least, got Jesus to God status. Adoption made a son legally the father’s (even above his own natural sons?) but didn’t make that son into the father. Aren’t the gospel writers (Mark anyway, at the baptism) saying Jesus got made God’s legal heir, entitled to use his power?

        I enjoyed the book, btw, learned a LOT.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 20, 2018

          One of my points is that becoming divine means different things to different people. As you know from the book there were Jews who thought Moses had become divine and that people could be called God. That didn’t mean they were the one creator God.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  April 21, 2018

        About David and other Kings of Israel: many ancient peoples did believe their monarchs were divine beings, either in their lifetime or after death. We’re the people of Israel entirely immune to that notion? Would calling Jesus the heir to the throne of David in itself suggest he was, in that sense, divine?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 22, 2018

          Yes, the king was referred to as the “Son of God” (see 1 Sam. 7:14; Psalm 2), and sometimes even called “God.” I devote a discussion to this in my book How Jesus Became God.

    • Avatar
      godspell  April 15, 2018

      It is absolutely true that ‘Son of God’ was an honorific used for people who had no divine attributes.

      However, there’s a difference between other humans calling you a Son of God, and God himself doing so. Even if Mark’s Jesus only hears God’s voice in his head saying this, we’re left in no doubt that it really is God’s voice he heard. (I’m speaking in terms of the story being told, believe what you like about what really happened. I totally believe Dorothy went to Oz.)

      Mark’s Jesus becomes divine when baptized by John, because God perceives some special quality in him that will make him a suitable messenger, to preach the coming of the Kingdom. And so he elevates him.

      David was, in a sense, elevated by God–anointed by Samuel at God’s command. Messiah means anointed one. David was a prototype for the Messiah, but he was a flawed vessel, who committed many sins. That kingdom had ultimately fallen to outside enemies. (As all earthly kingdoms fall, sooner or later.)

      Jesus is not meant to be an earthly king. He is the herald of God’s Kingdom, which will never fall. He has been elevated to a form of divinity to achieve this task. But he was born a mortal being. Chosen because he was worthy.

      Jesus speaks words and things happen. Harry Potter speaks words and things happen. Both are stories. We know Jesus existed, and Harry Potter doesn’t, but the magic is equally part of a story being told. Why draw lines between the two stories? Both are ways of communicating important truths to the world. So were the pagan myths. And though I don’t believe Christianity was ‘stolen’ from pagan myths, I do know for a fact that from early in Christian history, even the most devout Christians have learned from those myths–while refusing to acknowledge they have their own. Myth doesn’t mean lie. Myths–the great ones–are all true.

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 13, 2018

    So, one can be divine without being God or being equal with God. It reminds me of how some of my more mystical friends contend that God is within people and we are all part of God.

    • Avatar
      Hormiga  April 15, 2018

      > some of my more mystical friends contend that God is within people and we are all part of God.

      Hey, I’m a stone cold atheist and (provisional) materialistic reductionist. And I totally agree with that!

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  April 28, 2018

        Don’t the Jews believe some version of what your mystical friends believe?

  5. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  April 13, 2018

    Excellent post! Isnt the concept of Jesus’ divinity as presented in the gospels different than the theological teaching of the Trinity? In other words, I have read where Judaism taught for instance that after his death Moses became a divine being but wasn’t himself God. So did the very early Church considered Jesus as a divine being, similar to Moses, but not God himself and the theological concept of a triune God developed later after the gospels were written?

  6. Avatar
    nbraith1975  April 13, 2018

    I’ll have to disagree that any of the four gospels portray Jesus as being divine or a third part of the god of the Bible.

    If anyone is interested in further scholarly study and interpretation of this matter go to either of these websites:



    You will find every passage of scripture used by trinitarians debunked – including in the gospel of John.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2018

      I’m not arguing for a trinitarian view.

      • Avatar
        godspell  April 15, 2018

        I was raised a trinitarian (nobody does it quite like us Catholics) and the thought never crossed my mind you were arguing that.

    • Avatar
      VirtualAlex  April 18, 2018

      Very true. Trinitarianism came later. The gospels aren’t trying to preach that. That has been shoehorned in by later christians.

  7. Avatar
    hoijarvi  April 13, 2018

    I’m currently reading “How Jesus Became God”. Is there something in that book you would radically change today?

  8. talmoore
    talmoore  April 13, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, the sense I get — from my attempt at reconstructing the historical Jesus — is that Jesus and his disciples, as Jewish men, would have certainly found the idea that Jesus was the literal incarnation of God to be as absurd, ridiculous and blasphemous as any Jew would have thought. I do think that’s unquestionable.

    However! I do think that they found a clever work around their normal Jewish sensibilities, which allowed them to conceive of Jesus as partly God-ish, and that was by introducing the Holy Spirit into the mix. The Holy Spirit is literally a piece of God. It is the piece of God that Jewish writers, such as the composer of Proverbs, might call Chakhmah, or Wisdom. Greek Jewish philosophers, such as Philo, might call it Logos (hence the preamble of John). Apocalyptic Jews, such as Jesus and his disciples, might call it the Ruach ha-Qodesh, the “holy spirit” through which the ancient prophets spoke the word and will of God. (Note how the Logos and Holy Spirit started out as synonymous, but later became distinct, with the Logos only representing “the Son” in particular.)

    Whatever it is, or whatever you might call it, Jesus and his disciples appear to have believed that this piece of the divine entered Jesus and took over his body, making him a vessel and tool for God (allowing him to perform miracles and such), and, therefore, partly God! This is what, I believe, that you, Dr. Ehrman, call the Separationist Christology, where the divine part of Jesus — i.e. the Holy Spirit, or Logos — entered Jesus at his baptism, and departed his body at the crucifixion. This is probably as close as we can ever say that Jesus’ followers saw him as “God” in the flesh. This is the Christology that is most consistant, I think, with all four Gospels and Paul. Anything more complex than that is the product of later Christological developments.

  9. Avatar
    fishician  April 13, 2018

    Of course, being divine, that is “a” god, is not the same as being “the” God. Do you think the Gentiles who wrote the Gospels found it easier to see Jesus as “a” god as opposed to the Jews who acknowledged only one God? I’ve heard you suggest that Paul, a Jew, saw Jesus more as an exalted angel than being in fact God.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2018

      My view is that Paul thought Jesus started out as an angel, but then was exalted to the level of divinity. Moreover, this kind of view was perfectly acceptable within Judaism.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 15, 2018

      One way to think about it is that during the End Times battle, God’s army of angels — the Holy Host of the “LORD of Hosts” — would fight along side the army of the righteous Israelites, against Satan’s army of demons and wicked men. So, in a way, the exalted divine being of the post-resurrection Jesus can be thought of as something like the archangel Michael — that is, the commander-in-chief of the Holy Host, who will lead God’s Army on the battle field, and who afterwhich will rule the new Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. This, in essence, is what most apocalyptic Jews viewed as the so-called “Son of Man” figure of Daniel’s prophecy, who comes on a cloud from heaven, leading the Holy Host of God. Jesus’ disciples seem to have thought that after his death and resurrection Jesus was exalted to this role, which he would perform at his return.

  10. Avatar
    James  April 13, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, you lifted my spirits with this post: 1) you describe what you once thought, and why; 2) you describe how your thinking changed, and why; 3) you reveal yourself willing to reconsider the evidence and to try different approaches to understanding it; and 4) throughout you provide us with a fine example of scholarly humility. Such is the very heart of sound scholarship. Thank you, and may your tribe increase!

  11. Avatar
    Anton  April 13, 2018

    There is a typo in the paragraph after the sentence in red colour. John, at beginning, shoud be Jesus is portrayed as divine in John.

  12. Avatar
    Anton  April 13, 2018

    I also do not agree with John that Jesus existed in heaven before he was born. There was no need for him to be there. Jesus came into existence when born on earth.

  13. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  April 13, 2018

    Professor, I still get hung up on the apparent fact that Paul, writing so many years before the Synoptics and so few years after Jesus’ death, was exposed to a theology so much more “advanced” (if I may be allowed to use that word to describe a “higher” Christology) than what appears in Mark, Matthew and Luke. Even the hymns to Christ that Paul recites are more “divine” than what we see in the Synoptics so many years later. Is the explanation simply that the authors of the later writings were the products of different Jesus or Christ communities than was Paul, and thus reflected the state of Christology to which they were exposed? Or, leaving aside the way it may have matured as we move through the genuine Pauline epistles, was Paul effectively the author of the “higher’ Christology that he was preaching?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2018

      I think the problem is imagining that theological thinking advanced in a linear fashion — that at one point all Christians believed X then they believed Y and then they believed Z, so that if you find a Christian believing Y then that one must have been living *prior* to one beliving Z. I don’t think it worked that way. High christologies developed in different times and places, not all at once everywhere. Paul had a high one; Mark had a low one; but that doesn’t give us a reliable key to their relative dates.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  April 15, 2018

        Of course, the way I solve this problem is by suggesting that proto-Mark (the very first version of Mark), was written in the 40s CE.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  November 6, 2018

        Still, that Paul came so soon after Jesus and still had such a highly developed Christology is baffling. If he got it from any who came before him, even closer to Jesus’ death, that would be even more baffling. One way to render the development a little less odd would be to de-emphasize Acts because of its historical unreliability and to realize that Paul might have taken years to develop his ideas after his initial vision….perhaps in Arabia. I wonder what the folk religions in Arabia believed that might have influenced Paul (if he intermingled with them). Also, that amalgam of Hellenistic and Hebraic thought that Maccoby argues for would have had more time to develop.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 7, 2018

          I discuss some of that in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (six chapters on Paul).

  14. Lev
    Lev  April 13, 2018

    “Here he is not born of a virgin and he is not adopted by God at the baptism (neither event is narrated in John – and could not be, given, John’s Christology).”

    Whilst this is technically true (the narration of Jesus’ baptism is absent from John), could it not be argued that John carefully arranges his opening chapter where he suggests the logos became flesh (adoption) at the moment of baptism?

    1. The opening 5 verses describe the divine, nameless Word of God which is *with* God (presumably in heaven).
    2. The following 4 verses describe John and his mission.
    3. Then, interestingly, v12-13 describe how God adopts his children through ‘power’.
    4. It is not until we get to v14, a whole 8 verses after the introduction of John the Baptist, where we read the Word became flesh.
    5. *Immediately* after that we have the Baptist’s excited proclamation “this was he”!

    It’s as if the John’s gospel is describing *how* and *when* the Word became flesh in the following order:

    1. Heavenly Word with God
    2. John sent baptising
    3. God adopts his children with power
    4. Heavenly Word becomes earthly flesh
    5. The Baptist proclaims Jesus as “the one”

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2018

      I think it is key that 1:14 and 18 bring the prologue to a conclusion. Only then do we get an actual referent co the baptism. The mentions of John in the prologue are prose insertions into an original poetic construction, meant to clarify the relationship between Jesus and John for readers who either wondered or who had the wrong understanding.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  April 28, 2018

        Are you suggesting that the prologue may have been added by someone other than John?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 29, 2018

          No, I think the author used a previously existing piece (poem) that he edited a bit as his “prologue.”

  15. Avatar
    Hon Wai  April 13, 2018

    If the synoptic evangelists intend to portray Jesus as divine via reporting his healing acts, exorcisms, raising the dead and pronouncing forgiveness, then – assuming these actions originate from the historical Jesus (of course, reading the texts as historians, the reader needs not think the historical Jesus performed actual miracles, simply that his actions were understood by the bystanders as miracles) – surely one would have to accept that the historical Jesus thought he was divine? How can we avoid this conclusion yet accepting the evangelists thought he was divine?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2018

      I don’t assume these actions originated with the historical Jesus.

      • Avatar
        Hon Wai  April 15, 2018

        I thought most scholars accept, given the copious reported incidents, the historical Jesus performed actions which were interrupted by his followers to be exorcisms and healings. Also your study on the historical Jesus reinterprets exorcisms and healings ministry via the lens of Jesus as an apocalytic prophet (in the kingdom to come, there will be no demons, no sickness).

        • Bart
          Bart  April 16, 2018

          Yes, they do. I don’t, however.

          • Avatar
            Hon Wai  April 16, 2018

            Maybe I am missing something here. In “Jesus apocalyptic prophet of the millennium” (1999), you argued, “There can be little doubt that whether or not there exist supernatural evil spirits…Jesus was widely thought to be able to cast them out…Jesus’ exorcisms are among the best-attested deeds of the Gospel traditions…Much the same can be said about Jesus’ reputation as a healer…Whatever you think about the philosophical possibility of miracles, it’s clear that Jesus was widely reputed to have done them.”
            I just want to check if the above remains your position, or whether via research subsequent to 1999, you have altered your position, just as you have altered your view on Synoptic evangelists’ view of Jesus’ divinity in light of new arguments. Much of my views on the New Testament have been shaped by your work, so if your views change, I may have to re-evaluate my own views!

          • Bart
            Bart  April 17, 2018

            Yes, that’s right “he was widely thought” to have done these things. That does not mean, however, that he did them.

    • Avatar
      VirtualAlex  April 18, 2018

      Maybe he would have thought of himself as powered by God, like Moses and Elijah doing their clever tricks?

  16. Avatar
    jdub3125  April 13, 2018

    Perhaps the pure humanity of Jesus and a life based on love, harmony, and peace, as opposed to the usual hatreds, selfishness, greed, and warring madness, were not enough to carry the day, nor cause the triumph. Not surprising given a low level of civility and morality of that era, not that the prevailing level today is much higher. So to make the case that Jesus lived for a noble purpose, the authors had to include the superstitious miracle stories, miracle powers, virgin birth, bodily resurrection, and hence deification?

  17. Avatar
    ajohns  April 13, 2018

    The Gospel of John’s christology is very confusing to me, if Jesus was both *with* God yet also *was* God himself, don’t you have 2 Gods there? If Jesus is the word of god who in some sense was a god himself, Who is that “other” god that he is with?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2018

      Welcome to the joys of Christian theology! It gets more confusing as time moves on.

      • Lev
        Lev  April 16, 2018

        What is even more confusing (to me) is John 10:31-36 where Jesus appears to suggest all Jews share in the divinity of God:

        “Jesus answered, ‘Is it not written in your law, “I said, you are gods”? If those to whom the word of God came were called “gods”—and the scripture cannot be annulled— can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, “I am God’s Son”?”

        Here Jesus seems to be rolling back from an explicit claim over personal divinity (v 30: “The Father and I are one.”) and argues that all Jews share a common divinity. I’ve got an odd feeling I’ve asked this before – so forgive me if I have – but how do you understand what John’s Jesus is saying here?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 17, 2018

          I’ve never been completely sure. It *seems* like Jesus is just trying to win an argument!

          • Avatar
            llamensdor  April 28, 2018

            John’s entire gospel has little, if anything, to do with the historical Jesus. John’s Jesus is a pompous, Jew-hating Greek philosopher.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 29, 2018

            Don’t think I agree with that. He certainly doesn’t have any philosophical training, even if he is vaguely familiar with some popular versions of philosophical ideas.

        • Avatar
          godspell  April 18, 2018

          I’d assume John himself had conflicting ideas, and I’ve never met anyone who didn’t, so that tracks.

          It’s references like this in the gospels that probably led to the notion prevalent throughout the early church that the goal of Christian faith was not for God to become man, but for men and women to become God.

          That may, in fact, be something like what Jesus imagined the Kingdom would be.

  18. Avatar
    godspell  April 13, 2018

    I’m sure I won’t be the only one to ask, but is Matthew basically in the same camp as Luke on this question?

    Given the arguments about whether Matthew or Luke came first, it would be interesting to see if Matthew’s view of Jesus’ divinity was somewhere in-between Mark and Luke’s.

    I realize this is a change in POV for you, but I think many Christians would say you’re still denying the divinity of Jesus in the synoptics by calling him a ‘God-man.’

    Anyway, there’s only one Godman–or possibly two.


    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2018

      I think it is standard theological language to refer to Christ as a God-man; for orthodox thinking he is fully divine adn fully human at one and the same time.

      • Avatar
        godspell  April 15, 2018

        Damn. I shouldn’t have let my whimsy type out the second part of my post. I just love those God-Man comics so much.

        And nobody else thought to ask about Matthew.

        Is Matthew’s perspective going to be in a follow-up article?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 16, 2018

          My sense is that the Virgin Birth makes jesus divine for Matthew as well.

          • Avatar
            godspell  April 17, 2018

            Point of order–in Luke, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, married, clearly not a virgin, but past child-bearing years, and barren, also conceives through the Holy Spirit. That child is John the Baptist. This story exists nowhere else. It seems to be Luke’s contribution.

            Did Luke also believe John was the begotten Son of God, a divine being?

            This would, perhaps, solve the problem of Jesus’ baptism. The Son of God was not baptized by a man, but rather by a fellow Son of God. All in the family, you know?

            With Matthew, it seems fairly conservative–like something not unlike the miraculous births of the Old Testament. There are five such births, I believe, including Isaac and Samson.

            Luke seems almost pagan–“God has found favor with you.” He wants to make it clear that yes, this has happened before, but this is different, special.

            This may be why it was so important to emphasize Mary’s virginity. Even though it’s arguably more miraculous for a 90 year old woman to give birth.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 17, 2018

            No, Elizabeth is not a virgin. She, like OT barren women, is allowed to become pregnant well past her time.

          • Avatar
            godspell  April 18, 2018

            I understand that distinction, but a miraculous birth is a miraculous birth is a miraculous birth. And miraculous births give rise to exceptional people, clothed in a form of divinity.

            It wasn’t such a huge leap they were making. And seriously, who believes Elizabeth was having marital sex at 90? Well, I don’t believe that particular Elizabeth existed, but that’s neither here nor there.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 18, 2018

            It’s a big difference. Many older women thought to be unable to conceive have conceived. There is, though, only one virgin birth. The former was not thought to make a child divine. The latter was.

          • Avatar
            godspell  April 22, 2018

            In the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus interacts with Moses and Elijah as equals, with no sense that they are in any way subordinate to him. Jesus was sometimes believed, in the gospels to be either Elijah or John the Baptist returned. Jesus says no man born of woman (as he was) is greater than John the Baptist.

            These may be memories of things he actually said (I’m not suggesting the Transfiguration literally occurred, but he probably did refer to both prophets, and definitely to John), and I would suggest that one reason for the Virgin Birth story to take hold was to distinguish Jesus from other great prophets who he himself never claimed to be superior to.

            Mark was content with the adoption story, which possibly stems from a personal religious experience at his baptism that he shared with his disciples. Mark likes to get his points across by allusion.

            But when that subtler version of the story failed to convince most people (and why would it? anybody can hear a voice inside his or her head, and as you say, the earlier prophets had reputedly worked equally impressive miracles), the temptation to keep upping the ante would be hard to resist.

            And, of course, the problem with saying a young unmarried woman’s pregnancy is a miracle is that there’s nothing miraculous about it, unless you assume the divine explanation for her pregnancy is true–many cultures have believed in such births, I understand.

            Whereas, a 90 year old woman giving birth under any circumstances would be at the very least a medical miracle.

  19. Telling
    Telling  April 13, 2018

    Re: (In Luke Jesus did not exist *prior* to that conception to the virgin – his conception is when he came into existence).   For John, Jesus was a pre-existent divine being – the Word of God who was both with God and was God at the beginning of all things – who became a human.

    With a metaphysical understanding of the nature of reality, it is assumed that the man “Jesus” comes into being at time of his physical birth, but the “I” quality, the awareness, is eternal and exists before the foundation of the world. This would be true of anyone, not only Jesus.

    I think also the idea of being “conceived by a virgin” should be construed as the mother was a virgin at time of marriage or right up to the time of conception. The supernatural aspects would be added later by those having a vested interest in making demonstration that their supernatural hero can whip your supernatural hero.

  20. Avatar
    boriswang28  April 14, 2018

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,

    If this is the case, how would the Synoptic authors reconcile there being two “Gods”?

    If Jesus wasn’t ALWAYS God (as according to John), then wouldn’t it be plausible to say that at a point of time a second God became existent?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2018

      One of the gods was subordinate to the Other. That happened sometimes in Judaism as well.

      • Avatar
        boriswang28  April 15, 2018

        Isn’t the idea of there being more than one god against the basic tenent of Judaism? Surely the Synoptic writers would of been aware of this, since in the Synptics gospels Jesus himself said there is only one God.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 16, 2018

          You would think so, but it’s actually not that simple. There are other divine beings of lesser power and glory.

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