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Jesus the Messiah Before the Resurrection

In my recent posts I have argued, against the Mythicists, that the idea of someone (or lots of someones) inventing Jesus as a crucified messiah does not seem plausible, given the fact that no one expected a messiah to be crucified.  If you were to invent a messiah, it would not be one that was completely different (opposite, actually) to what anyone expected.

In response to these posts, several readers have asked why, then, Jesus’ own followers thought he could be the messiah while he was alive: the historical man himself, as reconstructed by contemporary scholars, also does not seem to be like what anyone would have expected the messiah to be.  He too was not a warrior-king, or a cosmic judge coming on the clouds of heaven, or a mighty priest (he was not from the priestly line, for one thing).   So why would anyone think a lower-class itinerant preacher from the rural backwoods of Galilee was the messiah?

It’s a great question, and obviously a completely fundamental one.  The followers of Jesus did think he was the messiah.  And they must have thought that before he was crucified (for a reason that I’ll explain in a moment).   So what would make them think so?

My short answer is that …

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Why Would Jesus’ Disciples Think He Was The Messiah?
The Invention of a Crucified Messiah



  1. godspell  November 17, 2016

    I agree Jesus’ disciples thought of him as Messiah before his death. I agree he told them things that helped lead them to that belief. I’m not convinced he ever said, in so many words “I am Messiah!” I think he was ambivalent on that point, and I think he was cryptic, and I think they read into what he said, and he allowed them to do so. And the difference may be academic, but an academician should have no problem with that. 😉

  2. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  November 17, 2016

    A couple of thoughts I have had on this topic is that many believed the Messiah was going to deliver Israel from foreign oppression and be their priestly-king. Correct me if I am wrong on that. In that way of understanding Jesus he must have been a very charismatic individual in the way someone like Gandhi would become centuries later. That would allow his followers to consider him to be the Messiah.

    Another way Jesus could be seen as the Messiah would be because of the miracles that have been alleged to occur. Did the Jews expect their messiah to be a miracle worker? I understand that the study of miracles are beyond the purview of empirical study and therefore cannot be historically verified. My question then becomes how and why did miracle stories become associated and connected to the historical Jesus and is their any grain of truth behind them or are they merely symbolic?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 18, 2016

      There are some traditions about the messiah being a worker of miracles. But so were lots of others.

  3. rburos  November 17, 2016

    Excellent. And of course one of the best scholars is norsk!

  4. Kazibwe Edris  November 17, 2016

    “They had thought, before his death, that he was the messiah. It is the only reason they could have thought so after his death.”

    “The crucifixion completely and utterly destroyed all the hopes that the disciples had about the future, the identity of their master jesus
    and their own roles in the future state of Israel. Nothing could have destroyed these hopes more thoroughly or convincingly. The execution of jesus was not simply an awful tragedy for him personally – an unspeakable tragedy – it was the death knell for everything he proclaimed and stood for, that the powers of evil were soon to be destroyed and a utopian kingdom would come with him at the head of it. So much for *that* idea. It not only didn’t happen. It was shown to be what it was, a chimeric vision of a weak creature brutally destroyed by the powers whose demise he had predicted.”

    1. the pre-crucified jesus did not think that he was going to die and god would intervene anytime soon. repent for the kingdom of god is at hand.
    2. the pre-crucified jesus thought that his disciples will get rewarded here on earth

    since this was all false, did the disciples become like modern day apologists and try to reconcile pre-crucified and post-crucified jesus?

    this was a messiah making false predictions .

    • Bart
      Bart  November 18, 2016

      Yes, I think they did.

    • godspell  November 20, 2016

      I don’t agree with Bart on this point. I think Jesus told his disciples he was going to die, and I think he intentionally arranged things so that he would die, and when he told them he was going to die, they refused to believe it, and got angry with him.

      It just doesn’t make sense to me that the gospel writers would make up stories where the disciples, notably Peter, berated Jesus for refusing to live up to their expectations.

      Yes, they did have to justify the fact that he believed the Kingdom of God was coming soon, and it didn’t. Retroactively, they had to come up with ways to explain that. But I do not believe Jesus thought he was going to reign over an earthly kingdom. I think he believed he would have to sacrifice himself for the Kingdom to come.

      • Kazibwe Edris  November 21, 2016

        mark has a need for jesus to die
        so do the other writers.

        did the historical jesus have a need for himself to die?
        mark has always put peter as one guy who doesn’t get that jesus needs to die. did the historical peter think that jesus needed to die?

        • dankoh  November 27, 2016

          I would say that the gospels had an ex post facto need for Jesus to die, since he DID die. I don’t think the disciples at the time were expecting it.

          But while I agree that Jesus wasn’t expecting to die, I still don’t understand how he thought he could get away with disrupting the Temple during the most volatile time of the year, and not be stopped and probably executed. Vermes writes that as long as Jesus stayed in Galilee, the authorities could ignore his antics, but not once he came to Jerusalem.

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  December 4, 2016

            They might not have thought he was going to die for any of the reasons that Christians give by use of prophecies. But, if they knew anything at all about the fate of Judas the Galilean and the way the Jewish quislings of Roman rule, along with Pilate, might react to someone people were calling “the king of the Jews,” they must have been worried that Jesus might be arrested and executed.

          • dankoh  December 5, 2016

            To SBrundey091941: Which is why he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone he was claiming to be the king of the Jews. Of course, that raises the question of how Pilate found out about it, possibly from Judas, but it does explain why Jesus would neither admit nor deny it.

            As for Judas the Galilean (not to mention John the Baptist), Jesus and his disciples had been getting away with their activities in Galilee for somewhere between 1 and 3 years at this point, and the authorities had not stopped them, so they probably though they could safely go to Jerusalem. I’m pretty sure they were not aware of the political tensions there, or that the governor would be in J’lem to keep order.

          • HistoricalChristianity  December 9, 2016

            These comments are approaching the topic from the wrong perspective. The gospel diarists portrayed Jesus as (among other things) an apocalyptic preacher or a Zealot. Any one of those could safely bet that they would be executed by Rome. That was by far the most likely to happen at Jerusalem during Passover. The diarists needed to explain why a good person would be executed by Rome. So they portray him as an apocalyptic preacher in Jerusalem during Passover. Then they portray him as falsely accused of being a Zealot, acquitted of that accusation, but still executed to prevent a riot. An innocent man (or god or god-man) being killed. That could be a worthy universal sacrifice.

            They synoptic authors also had various explanations for why the ideas of Christianity were unknown during his lifetime. They surely couldn’t admit that they were invented after his death. But they could say that he told his disciples not to tell anyone. Or say that the disciples were dense. Or say that it was hidden from them. They did all of those.

  5. sspickering  November 17, 2016

    It does strike me as a logical conclusion that, given the beliefs about what a messiah would do, Jesus must have been seen as the messiah before he died, in order for him to be seen as the messiah afterwards. However, the beliefs and conclusions of human beings are often not logical. Is there any hard evidence of this?

  6. tompicard
    tompicard  November 17, 2016

    this is an excellent topic, I look forward to your next posts

    I suppose this question could fill a book, if you are in search of new ideas for books.

  7. UCCLMrh  November 17, 2016

    Bart, you are the master of the intellectual cliff-hanger.

  8. KathleenM  November 17, 2016

    Got it. There are some HEB words involved also in these ideas:

    1) MASHIACH (Mesiah) means anointed, ie Kings with oil, such as David was, anointed by God, and humankind.
    this is derived from the root word Mem Shin Chet which means to paint.
    the Mashiach was to issue in the exiles back to Judea and rebuild Jerusalem (the Temple) reinstate the Law

    ****2) MOSHIAH means “savior,” and some gentiles may have confused the 2 words. (In Paul’s teachings?)

    3) Olam Ha Ba is the Messianic age of peace to come and it does also refer to the afterlife as a world of peace, justice, obedience to the Law, the age to come the Jewish people today still expect.

    Resurrection – is the Greek, Anastasis, rising again, as in rise up from a seat, a bed. Idiomatic meaning – to turn the tables, the chair over, becoming Anastemi, figuratively, a moral recovery with a new “foundation.” A new outlook, or way of viewing the truth. Resurrection to life, from death. It pertained to “judgement” as well in John’s writings, or those attributed to him. 11:25: “die, yet live.” Die to the old way, born again to the new. Born from above, not below, regeneration. Anastatoo was the religious word – just meaning to have a new insight IMHO. Change religious errors – resurrect the truth from error. Messianic age – an age of truth and peace and justice.

    Also back to the 3rd Day – it just meant in a short while, to be raised up from a bed on day 3, or in a short while, was to be healed shortly – by a Rabbi and blessed to return to work. A raising up might have just been to be healed before death occurred…Peter raised Tabitha, maybe Jesus too? Or he raised himself with his wisdom….we have applied new meanings over time to all of this….all good…but possibly all new in our own Era. k

    • dankoh  December 5, 2016

      WRT #2: Can you spell out the Hebrew letters? Transliterations are not reliable for this sort of thing. Also, Paul having been a learned Pharisee probably would not have been confused (unless he was deliberately conflating two words).

      WRT #3: ‘olam haba in Talmudic times means “the next world” – that is, after death. I’ve never seen it used to describe a messianic era on earth; do you have a citation?

  9. Scott  November 17, 2016

    If we accept that Jesus’ followers thought that he was the Messiah before his crucifixion, how do we explain why later converts would take their word for it knowing that Jesus was killed by the Romans? We know many Jews saw this as a “stumbling block”. What convinced others to step over the block and not stumble?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 18, 2016

      Ah, big topic. In fact, it’s the topic of my new book, just finished, and hopefully to be published next year at this time! The followers of Jesus did things to convince others they were right!

      • dankoh  November 27, 2016

        Do you think it likely that, as Rodney Stark suggests, the Jesus movement was more successful among the Hellenized Jews, who were sometimes not so well-grounded in their tradition, than among the Jerusalem Jews, who knew very well what a messiah was supposed to be? (I’d add that the Galilean Jews, even if not hellenized, were also not as knowledgeable.) I note that Paul, who claimed he was on a mission to the Gentiles (Gal.), spent a lot of time in the synagogues of Asia Minor, which makes me wonder just how much “gentile” missionizing he was doing.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 28, 2016

          My sense is that it was more attractive to Jews in the Diaspora than in Judea, but that on the whole it was not all that attractive to Jews at all, for the most part.

          • dankoh  December 5, 2016

            I suggest two reasons for the lack of attraction: First, it went against the Jewish understanding that the messiah had to be alive (and not dead and made alive again), and second, there was (and is) a strong Jewish prejudice against sacrificing a human being, plus everyone is responsible for their own sins. So “Jesus died for your sins” is not going to appeal to Jews. I’d be interested in your thoughts, especially on the second point.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 7, 2016

            I’d say there is a strong prejudice against human sacrifice among both Jews and gentiles!

          • dankoh  December 7, 2016

            Granted there is a prejudice against human sacrifice among gentiles as well (though the dionysian rites come to mind, even if they were using goats by this time), how do see the line “Jesus died for your sins” appealing to the Greek world but not the Jewish? My problems are, first, the Greek world did not have the same problem with sin, and second, following from that, they did not have the same need for expiation.

            I can also see an additional reason why the Jews generally did not accept this argument: Second Temple Judaism was generally heading away from communal responsibility for sin as seen in the Scripture and more toward individual responsibility (hence Ezekiel and Jeremiah each announcing that the sins of the fathers will no longer fall on the children. Thoughts?

          • Bart
            Bart  December 8, 2016

            With most gentiles, evangelists built a case not from “need” (sin) to “solution” but the other way around: “solution” (Christ died) to “need” (because you sinned)

          • HistoricalChristianity  December 7, 2016

            Polytheists definitely believed in sacrifices, but didn’t say they were for sins. Most didn’t have the concept of sin since their religion didn’t include a moral code. They would have no problem with a god, a god-man, or a demiurge being offered as a universal sacrifice. It was the region’s first free religion. The challenge was getting polytheists to agree that the gods wouldn’t be angry if people stopped offering them sacrifices. Acceptance of that idea didn’t happen in big numbers until Constantine.

            Israel had their own exclusive contract with the God of Israel (Mosaic Covenant). It would be hard to convince them that their god would accept the same universal sacrifice that all the other gods accepted. That’s why Christians worked so hard to convince Jews that Jesus was God, but specifically the same god as the God of Israel. It’s why they wanted to show texts from Tanakh as predicting Jesus. I don’t think they were ever very successful in convincing Jews, but Christians still believe that today.

          • HistoricalChristianity  December 8, 2016

            I wish we had more writings from that era. Perhaps more will be discovered some day. To offer sacrifices was a need that was universally perceived. I think the earliest suggestion of Christianity was that the universal sacrifice of Jesus removed the need for anyone, anywhere, to offer any sacrifice to any god for any reason. That was the groundbreaking idea. In all of western civilization, I think no religion requires sacrifices.

  10. doug  November 17, 2016

    Now you’ve got me curious about Nils Dahl. And that’s a good thing.

  11. Wilusa  November 17, 2016

    I know I’m blathering about things you’ll surely address, one way or the other, further on. But here goes…

    These particular people believed in both God’s coming “Kingdom” and a “Messiah.” Given that, it’s plausible that they thought the Messiah could come from a humble beginning, and eventually – after he’d won followers through his preaching – be recognized and exalted as the future King, to reign after God had established His Kingdom.

    Do you think Jesus and some of his disciples had initially thought John the Baptist was the Messiah? His death disproved that notion – but might their having thought so much about it have made it easier for them to speculate that *someone else* they already knew might be the chosen one?

    Or do you think Jesus had been egotistical enough to think *he* was the Messiah all along?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 18, 2016

      I don’t think Jesus thought of John as the messiah, but some of his other followers did. And I don’t know *when* Jesus started considering himself the messiah, but he did at some point!

  12. DavidBeaman  November 17, 2016

    Great! I’m looking forward to that next post.

  13. Wilusa  November 17, 2016

    I’ll make this a separate question. Which of these two possibilities do you think is the more likely?

    1. Jesus went to Jerusalem, possibly in 29 CE, for what he expected to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience of Passover Week there. In Jerusalem, he heard for the first time about John the Baptist. He went to hear John preach, was baptized – and possibly was so amazed by everything he’d heard that he decided, on the spot, to “spread the word” by preaching in Galilee.

    2. Jesus had already decided, in Galilee, to become an apocalyptic preacher. (So he had learned the basic apocalyptic doctrine, somehow.) He hiked all the way to Judea to be baptized by John the Baptist – whom he’d already heard of – mostly so he could observe and get “tips” from what John was doing.

    Either way, he could have made friends among John’s followers, who thought of him again after John’s death…

    • Bart
      Bart  November 18, 2016

      Neither. I think he decided to become an apocalyptic preacher only after he joined up with John.

      • dankoh  November 27, 2016

        Would that be while John was still alive or after Antipas executed him?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 28, 2016

          He became John’s disciple while John was still living.

          • dankoh  November 28, 2016

            Sorry, my question was a bit ambiguous. I meant whether Jesus’ decision to become an apocolyptic preacher likely happened before or after John was executed.

          • Bart
            Bart  November 29, 2016

            He became an apocalypticist *before*. And he probably started his ministry before John was killed, by at least a bit. (Though one could argue either way)

  14. Tempo1936  November 17, 2016

    1. Paul believed Jesus was the Messiah because God raised him from the dead.

    2. Since Paul wrote first, it’s likely paul’s writing influenced the authors who wrote the Gospels concerning Jesus being the Messiah.
    Do you agree?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 18, 2016

      I think Paul may have influenced the author of Mark, but not the other Gospels.

  15. jhague  November 17, 2016

    Not meaning to offend anyone but doesn’t Jesus thinking he was the messiah and telling his followers that he was the messiah make him delusional? Wouldn’t most Jews of the first century think that someone who was a lower-class itinerant preacher from the rural backwoods of Galilee was out of his mind for thinking that he was the messiah?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 18, 2016

      If he were a modern person, yes. But an ancient person, no.

      • jhague  November 18, 2016

        Does Mark 3:21 indicate that some people in the first century thought Jesus was out of his mind?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 20, 2016

          At least his family!

          • jhague  November 20, 2016

            My point is that some ancient people must have thought Jesus was out of his mind at least at some point(s) of his ministry.

  16. jhague  November 17, 2016

    Jesus’ brother James did not seem to accept that Jesus was the messiah until after his death and resurrection. Is James an exception to your explanation?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 18, 2016

      Virtually all Christians came to think of Jesus as the messiah only after the resurrection.

  17. jhague  November 17, 2016

    As a side question, since James was not one of Jesus’ original followers, did he become the leader of the Jerusalem church simply because he was Jesus’ brother?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 18, 2016

      And because he had had a vision of Jesus. The combination of the two factors, I should think.

      • jhague  November 18, 2016

        The only evidence in the Bible for James having a vision of Jesus is from Paul, correct?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 20, 2016

          Yes, that’s the only direct evidence from the Bible.

          • dankoh  December 5, 2016

            Interesting, given that Paul and James were at odds. Perhaps James’ vision was common knowledge to the point that Paul could not leave him off the list?

          • Bart
            Bart  December 7, 2016

            Paul never actually expresses any animosity toward James in his letters.

          • dankoh  December 7, 2016

            Perhaps not animosity, but would you agree that Paul wanted to expand the Jesus movement to the gentiles, to the point of waiving the circumcision and dietary laws, while James nsisted on keeping them? Paul in Rom: 14:3 – “Let not him who eats [anything] despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains despise him who eats…” While James says they “should write to [the Gentiles] to abstain from … what is strangled and from blood.” Acts 15:29. “Strangled” as I understand it is shorthand for any method of slaughter other than that prescribed by ritual. Though even if there is some question about the authenticity of the “strangled” clause, I do not see any arguments about the prohibition on blood.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 8, 2016

            Paul claims that James was eye-to-eye with him on this one.

  18. Tony  November 17, 2016

    I’m reminded of Stephen Covey’s Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood. Both sides of the historicity argument could use that observation is spades, but I accuse the Mythicist of making it very difficult for others to understand them. Instead of focussed summaries, the main Mythicist players produce complicated tomes, inaccessible to most, with arguments flying all over the place.

    The Mythicist explanation represents a paradigm shift and a strong counter reaction is understandable – and to be expected. It remains to be seen whether the Mythicism explanation will ever gain traction.

    Meanwhile, I noticed that my response to the previous posting remains in purgatory. Pure heresy, I know. But I thought it important to produce, in summary form, the alternate Pauline explanation.

  19. flshrP  November 17, 2016

    I read recently that the crux of Judas’ betrayal was that he spilled the beans to the Jewish authorities regarding the private teachings that Jesus gave to the Twelve. Probably the reveal was that Jesus told the Twelve that he was the Anointed One, i.e. the Jewish Messiah. Or possibly that he said that he was a divinity. Is there any consensus position among NT scholars on this issue?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 18, 2016

      That’s my view. The majority view is probably that Judas informed them of Jesus’ whereabouts.

  20. talmoore
    talmoore  November 17, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, this question as to why anyone would consider a nobody from the backwaters of Galilee to be the Messiah, that is possibly the most nagging question I’ve had to solve in the narrative of my Jesus novel (the others being ones I’ve already mentioned in other comments: namely, did Judas really betray Jesus and, if so, why? And what, exactly, was the role of Jesus’ brother James before the crucifixion?).

    I eagerly anticipate your answer to this conundrum.

    I have my own theories, which I have worked out for the novel’s narrative, but I’m very curious to see if they line up with yours. In tackling the question of why anyone would think Jesus was the Messiah, I first considered all the figures from that same time period who were considered Messiahs: figures like Yochanan Gush haLav, Shim’on bar Gyorah, Eliezer ben Shim’on, Menachem ben Yehud, Yehud Gamla (Judas of Galilee), Eliezer ben Ya’ir, Theudas, The Egyptian, Shim’on bar Kokhba, Yochanan haMetavil (John the Baptist), and, of course, Yeshu’a haN’azori (Jesus the Nazorean). So I looked for a common thread that linked all of them. First off, none of them, save for possibly John the Baptist, came from priestly lines, as far as we know. None of them, as far as we know, had a clear lineage back to David. So taking those two important criteria off the list, we have to ask what other characteristic they had. Well, first off, most of them were military leaders. In fact, most of them were Galilean military leaders, which I think is an important clue. Second, they had all amassed a significant, some might say dangerous amount of faithful followers who truly believed they were the Messiah.

    So other than being Jewish men, what is the one distinguishing characteristic that they all, as far as we know, shared in common? They all believed that the Messianic Age was going to start ASAP, that they were the man who was going to take the lead in the imminent battle between good and evil. The only thing that separated them was HOW they had convinced their followers that the End Times were upon them, and why they each were the true Messiah. And, again, they all shared one thing in common when it came to rising to their respective leadership roles: Tzaddaqah. Now, Tzaddaqah is the Hebrew word often translated as “righteousness”, but it’s a word laden with much more meaning and nuance. At times it could mean “justice” and at times it could mean “charity” and at times it could simply mean “worthiness”. The most important thing is that a leader, any leader worth his salt, must possess Tzaddaqah in order to be a proper leader. If he lacks Tzaddaqah, then he is fundamentally unfit to be a leader.

    So how did each of these messianic claimants display their Tzaddaqah? Well, one thing they, most certainly, did was display tremendous piety. They really, really, truly believed in the God of Israel, in the divine words of the Torah, in the important role of the Jews in history. They were through-and-through true believers. And as true believers they were convinced that God was on their side, that God favored them. But they had two different ways of showing that God favored them. For the military leaders, they displayed their zeal and God’s favor of them through military victory. The more battles they won, the more their followers believed “this guy just might be the Messiah”.

    But Jesus clearly never fought in any battles, let alone won any. So Jesus probably followed the second option, the option that men like John the Baptist used, and that was to display God’s favor through pel’ot or “signs”. We erroneously call these miracles. A better translation might be “marvels”. “Signs” for ancient Jews could be any number of things that ostenibly showed that God was bestowing some kind of power onto someone. It could be the power to heal, the power the exorcise demons, the power to prophecy (which, in Jesus’ day, would be a sign of the Holy Spirit taking over a person), the power to interpret the Torah (and other displays of exceptional wisdom), the power to control nature. Any and all of these were interpreted as “signs” from God.

    Clearly, Jesus had convinced his followers that he was someone exceptionalvia some display of “signs” of power. Maybe he did really heal lepors. Maybe he really did exorcise demons. Maybe he did display a tremendous amount of knowledge and wisdom. Maybe he really did prophesy the coming apocalypse. Maybe he really did turn five fish into five thousand. I mean, I don’t believe he did, but he may have convinced others that he had done these things, and merely convincing them is enough. As we know from watching present day charlatan faith healers, faking exorcisms is really easy. As we know from magicians, faking nature “miracles” is also easy. As we know from modern charlatan “prophets,” from Joseph Smith to J. Z. Knight, it is REALLY easy to fake being a prophet. The point isn’t whether Jesus was legitimately doing any of these things. The point is he managed to convince enough other people that he was doing these things, and that’s what led them to believe he was the Messiah.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 18, 2016

      Yes, I think pretty much along the same lines. (And I know J. Z. Knight by the way!!)

      • talmoore
        talmoore  November 18, 2016

        I know. I’ve watched the lecture you gave at the Ramtha campus (if I remember correctly, about the Gospel of Judas?). I can only imagine how urreal that felt for you. One day you should write a post about your experience there.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 20, 2016

          Yeah, had dinner with her and Linda Evans. Quite an experience!

          • talmoore
            talmoore  November 20, 2016

            Oh yeah, I forgot Krystle Carrington was a votary of Ramtha!

      • talmoore
        talmoore  November 18, 2016

        And possibly one of the “greatest” works of modern “prophecy” (I use the word “greatest” very, very loosely) is the Urantia book, which is supposedly the work of several mysterious individuals from the 1920s and 30s, who “received” much of its text via prophetic trance techniques. Have you read any of the Urantia book, Dr. Ehrman? It may be only a work of spiritual fiction, but at over 2,000 pages long, it’s a great example of the limitless possibilites of the human imagination.

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