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Jesus’ Virgin Birth in Mark (Reader’s Mailbag February 26, 2016)

It is time for the weekly Readers’ Mailbag.  This week I will be dealing with only one question, one that I find particularly intriguing.  If you have any questions you would like me to answer, either in a comment or in the mailbag, let me know.  I can’t answer every question I get, either because I don’t know the answers (often enough!) or because I can’t get to them all.  But I take them all seriously and will do my best to get to yours!

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QUESTION: 

I’ve read of one NT scholar who is critical of your reasoning in How Jesus Became God. He says that your argument from silence is fallacious. For example, he says that just because the virgin birth is absent in Mark’s gospel does not constitute evidence that the writer did not believe in the virgin birth.

 

RESPONSE:

       Great question.  The first and most obvious thing to point out is that there is no way to know what another person believes (either the person who wrote Mark or the person who lives across the street) unless they say something about it (and even then it’s complicated: people say things all the time for all sorts of reasons!).  So anyone who thinks that an ancient author such as Mark believes something he doesn’t talk about – such as the virgin birth –obviously they bears the burden of proof.  What hints does Mark give that he subscribes to the idea of a virgin birth?  None at all.

But how could you show that Mark probably does not believe in the virgin birth (or possibly even know about it), if he never says one way or the other?  I think there are a number of things that have to be born in mind.

The first thing to stress is that the virgin birth is mentioned in only …

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Bart Ehrman on Problem of Suffering – UCB
Christ as the Adopted Son of God

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Comments

  1. Greg Matthews
    Greg Matthews  February 26, 2016

    To play devil’s advocate…how do we know parthenos originally meant “young woman” in Greek? Are there multiple older Greek writings where the word is rendered in a way that is clear that a woman can be young and not a virgin and then later writings near the time of the NT where the word is rendered in such a way that it is clear the intent is a virgin?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 29, 2016

      We know it because of how it gets used in earlier unambiguous contexts.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  February 26, 2016

    Mark, this has always puzzled me–we’re pretty sure the author of Matthew was born a Jew, right? So could he not read Hebrew, or could he simply not lay his hands on a copy of Isaiah in that language? I know books were not just lying around everywhere for people to read–no public libraries, and he’d hardly be welcome at the local synagogues.

    Were Hellenized Jews often Greek monoglots? We believe Jesus spoke Aramaic, and obviously his disciples did as well, but it wasn’t the disciple Matthew who wrote the gospel under that name, naturally. Would an Aramaic speaker be able to read Hebrew? Were they possibly somewhat fluent in the more traditional tongues, but not literate in them? How much do we know about this?

    • Avatar
      godspell  February 26, 2016

      I meant Bart, sorry. Mark is in my mind from recent posts, and much as I appreciate that new edit function for posting here, five minutes sometimes isn’t enough. :\

    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2016

      Most Jews in antiquity couldn’t read Hebrew — just as most today can’t.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  February 28, 2016

        Dr. Ehmran, as an Israeli Jew myself who lives in the USA, I feel I should qualify your last part. If we’re talking fluency, then, sure, the majority of Jews today probably aren’t fluent Hebrew speakers and readers. But if we’re talking familiarity, I think it would be safe to say that a majority of Jews today are rather familiar with basic Hebrew words and phrases, and probably even entire Hebrew passages, although — as with non-Arabic speaking Muslims — most Jews may have Hebrew passages memorized without fully understanding what those passages mean. I good example is the Sh’ma, i.e. the profession of faith constructed from various passages of Deuteronomy and Numbers, which every Jew learns in Shul and is expected to be able to recite verbatim in Hebrew (“Sh’ma Yisrael! Adonai eloheinu! Adonai achad!…”). Moreover, even those Jewish-ish pidgin languages, such as Yiddish and Ladino have a core of Hebrew words and phrases that have been imported into them (indeed, Yiddish even uses the Aramaic alphabet of modern Hebrew, so even if a Yiddish speaker isn’t fluent in Hebrew, they can at least read it). So…it’s rather questionable to say outright that “most” modern Jews can’t speak/read Hebrew. It’s probably more accurate to say that competence runs along a spectrum, from total fluency (i.e. a modern Israeli) to total ignorance (i.e. Bill Maher).

        • Bart
          Bart  February 29, 2016

          I’ve known hundreds of Jews in my life. Apart from the scholars, very few (any?) could actually read *and understand* Hebrew. They could maybe know how to pronounce it (thanks to Hebrew School). But not to know what they were reading.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  February 29, 2016

            Dr. Ehrman, I’ve spend all my life living between Israel, Los Angeles, New York City and South Florida — in other words, I’ve spent my entire life surrounded by Jews. I would posit that of the roughly 20 million Jews in the world right now, about a third (7 million) speak Hebrew fluently, another third have a rudimentary understanding of Hebrew, and the last third probably could not speak or read enough Hebrew to save their lives. I would venture that most of the Jews you’ve known are part of the latter third.

            As for Hebrew speakers of 1st century Judea, I believe scholars have seriously underestimated the numbers. Jewish scholars across Judea and the Galilee were certainly fluent in Hebrew. Jewish clergy, especially the priests and levites were probably also Hebrew fluent, more or less. And the Jewish nobility who were literate most likely learned Hebrew as well. And while the average rural Judean or Galilean was probably illiterate, I’m certain they knew various phrases and expressions in Hebrew, esp. the Sh’ma and certain Psalms. The analogy I like to use is that of Medieval Latin. While the average Medieval peasant was definitely not Latin fluent, they probably knew enough to understand (or get the gyst of) the Latin mass or certain legal terms and whatnot, but those peasants would never actually converse in Latin. It’s almost like how today the average English speaker may understand about 50% of Shakespeare, but would never actually use Elizabethean English in every day conversation.

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  February 28, 2016

        Then who read the scriptures? For that matter, who wrote them?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 29, 2016

          Depends which scriptures you mean.

          • Pattycake1974
            Pattycake1974  March 1, 2016

            I’m pretty sure I meant for those questions to be on a different thread. Oops!

      • Avatar
        godspell  February 29, 2016

        Most people of any background were illiterate in any language–but literacy in Greek was more prevalent, because it was the language of trade and commerce?

        Obviously there were educated Jews who would have known the correct translation of that word. So ‘Matthew’ couldn’t have been talking to any of them, or he’d have realized his mistake. Or perhaps he didn’t want to realize it, because Christianity was moving definitively in the direction of embracing the virgin birth story. Somebody might have told him of his blunder, and he’d have just refused to believe it. Distrust between traditional Jews and Jews who had become Christians must have been widespread at this point. Communication would have been poor, though I have to believe there were friendships and family relationships that struggled on between the two increasingly separate groups.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 29, 2016

          Greek may have been *spoken* widely, but that doesn’t mean more people had the leisure and money to go to school for years to learn how to write it.

          • Avatar
            godspell  March 1, 2016

            But clearly the author of Matthew did, or he couldn’t have written that gospel in Greek–perhaps his family was relatively prosperous, and literacy in Greek gave them an advantage in business. A person literate in one language could be literate in two, or three, or more, but would not necessarily be. I’m just curious how this misunderstanding came about. Obviously the original passage from Isaiah does not refer to a virgin giving birth.

            It doesn’t really refer to the Messiah either, of course. It’s a prediction relating to a much earlier time period, from before the time of Roman rule, which is what the Messiah was supposed to end.

            How does the passage translate into Aramaic?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 1, 2016

            I’m not sure! There weren’t Aramaic translations of Isaiah in the time of the NT.

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  March 14, 2016

            Bart, Godspell wrote, “Christianity was moving definitively in the direction of embracing the virgin birth story.” But do we know that to be the case or did Christianity begin moving in that direction because of Matthew and Luke’s stories? Do we know?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 14, 2016

            Well, some Xns were moving that direction before Matthew and Luke, or they *both* couldn’t have the story!

  3. Avatar
    francis  February 26, 2016

    Dr Ehrman: If Yeshua’s family thought he was nuts in they’re time. what are we to think of people who believe in him in our time???

    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2016

      Maybe they’re smarter these days? 🙂

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  March 14, 2016

        Maybe those who believed in him then and today were and are just as crazy as he was–you know, like Trump supporters. Oops, did I just say that?

    • Avatar
      godspell  February 29, 2016

      They thought he was nuts because they had known him from childhood, and could not think of him as he had come to think of himself. Not because they were modern skeptics, who it must be said, often have their own beliefs that can’t be justified logically. I may someday meet a human who doesn’t, but I doubt it.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 26, 2016

    Great explanation! So there’s strong evidence in this case.

    But whether or not there’s comparable “evidence,” the argument from silence surely *is* relevant in its most important use: that the Synoptic Gospels’ not mentioning the exalted claims of divinity Jesus makes in “John” should convince open-minded people that he didn’t really make them. It’s inconceivable that the Synoptic authors would have “chosen not to mention” such astounding claims – or that a *later* author could somehow have learned about them, when his predecessors hadn’t.

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  February 26, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman,
    The entire virgin birth narrative of Matthew and Luke appears terribly tacked on, as if the creator(s) of the story were simply desperate to fill in a lacuna in Jesus’ biography. We need to consider what a writer 30 to 40 years after the fact could possibly know about the circumstances surrounding the birth of a peasant. One of the reasons that Jesus’ birth narratives are so much more fantastical than his actual ministry is that — while the disciples actually had knowledge of the adult Jesus — Jesus’ birth was basically a blank canvas on which later votaries could paint whatever portrait they wanted, including a Zeus-like surreptitious conception, a dramatic diabolical plot by the ruling powers (i.e. King Herod), and the awe-inspired reverence of sages “from the orient”, etc. Any Hollywood screenwriter would be proud of such well-crafted stories.

  6. Avatar
    doug  February 26, 2016

    Some people today seem to think that early Christians had access to all four Biblical gospels, just as we do today. But the four Biblical gospels were probably written in different geographical areas, so for a while the people of each area probably only had one gospel. So it would have been very important for each gospel to contain all the key info on Jesus. But the virgin birth is missing from Mark. Also, when Mark was written, we know of no other gospels that existed (unless maybe Q or the earlier accounts mentioned in the beginning of Luke?).

  7. Avatar
    Prizm  February 26, 2016

    To paraphrase Rabbi Michael Skobac: What kind of miracle is the virgin birth anyway? How can anyone tell? Who could look at Mary and say “It’s a miracle! She’s had a baby, but she’s still a virgin!”. People can’t see it, it’s not a visual sign, you just have to trust that she’s telling the truth.

  8. Avatar
    TubaMike  February 26, 2016

    You, sir, are brilliant! Thank you for making all of this so clear, concise and readable. I am looking forward to reading your new book.

  9. Avatar
    bbcamerican  February 26, 2016

    The original comment that sparked this post sounds a lot like a question that was asked following one of your lectures (the video is somewhere online) in which the questioner asks some questions about applying your reasoning using purely Aristotelian logic, which would include the argument that, in layman’s terms, absence of proof does not equal proof of absence. So, just because there isn’t evidence for the existence of something doesn’t equate with evidence that thing “doesn’t” exist. In answering the question, you said something along the lines that if you are only worried about applying Aristotelian logic, then you can, for instance, come up with the seven last words of the dying Jesus. However, you point out, if you are trying to clarify what each author in the New testament actually said, you have to let each author speak for him/herself and not attribute to them words that were not their own.

    I have really come to appreciate your work because you are up front and honest about the fact that in everything related to early Christianity, or any ancient religion, we really have no way of knowing with 100% certainty exactly what happened. However, we have great analytical tools that can be used to determine what probably happened. Aristotelian logic or not, I agree with you that it beggars all reason to think that people thought Jesus was born of a virgin (as the actual Son of God that was conceived by the Holy Spirit) and yet just didn’t think that was important enough to mention. That makes about as much sense as the presidential debates have been making this election cycle, that is to say, no sense at all!

    Thanks for another great post!

    Mike

  10. Avatar
    Omar6741  February 26, 2016

    Do you think John knew about the Virgin Birth?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2016

      Nope.

      • Avatar
        perishingtardis  February 29, 2016

        Is John aware of the synoptic gospels at all? I’ve heard JD Crossan say that John probably did know the synoptics, but I don’t know offhand what his evidence was. If that were the case, he would be aware of the virgin birth. But I can’t imagine why John would leave that out, since he is all about trying to prove Jesus’s divinity.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 29, 2016

          My view is that John did *not* know the Synoptics, but it’s much debated.

      • Avatar
        bAnn  April 11, 2016

        It is possible that Mary was approached by someone who presented himself as from God. She was a young devout woman and no doubt would have been impressed by someone who made her feel very favored by God. What an honor! How could she refuse? I am seeing this as a young woman, not as an historian. She may have told this story to Luke (or whoever wrote Luke.) If she believed she was made pregnant by God, she would have passed such information on to her son. What an impression this would have made on a young man. This sounds simplistic; however, it may have been more simple than scholars tend to make it. Just some ideas.

  11. Avatar
    teg51  February 27, 2016

    Ok Bart, I have a question regarding 1 thessalonians 2:13-16; several scholars believe its an interpolation and that it was added later possibly by a scribe; what is your view, do you think those verses are original or do you think its an interpolation as well and if so, can you explain the reasons why?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 29, 2016

      I tend to think it’s original. Scholars have trouble knowing what in the world Paul means, but that’s no reason, in my view, to think that he couldn’t have said it!

      • Avatar
        SteveWalach  March 5, 2016

        In 1 Thessalonians 2:13 -16, why does Paul use “logos” for “word of God”?

        “Logos” gets special treatment in John’s gospel. Would Paul’s use of the term have a significance equivalent to the way John uses of it? And if it were a spoken word as the text implies “which you heard from us” isn’t there a better term to denote that use of the spoken “word”?

        Lastly, Strong’s Greek defines, the Greek preposition ἐν (transliterated to en) not as “in” as it occurs in every English translation of 1 Thess, 2:13 – 16 I’ve read, but “properly, in (inside, within); (figuratively) ‘in the realm (sphere) of,’ as in the condition (state) in which something operates from the inside (within).

        Does that shift in emphasis bring greater clarity to those verses?

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 27, 2016

    In his classic book, “The Age of Reason,” Thomas Paine makes the “omission” argument that it would have been quite unlikely that Biblical authors would have omitted the description of certain extraordinary events if they had actually occurred. The example Paine gives is the description reported in Matthew of people rising from graves following the death of Jesus. Another example would be Paul’s report, in First Corinthians, of 500 people seeing the Resurrected Jesus. Yet, neither of these two extraordinary claims is reported anywhere else in the Bible. How can that be? I think the same question could be raised about there being just two reports of a “virgin” birth. It is too incredible a claim not to be reported elsewhere if, indeed, it had occurred. I think these omissions are best explained.by there being different oral/literary traditions or “memories” as you describe in your about to be published new book.

    • Avatar
      Rogers  March 7, 2016

      To me the real problem is that the two virgin birth narratives that there are, are completely different ones. That is about as strong an argument for pure fabrication as one could conceive of – i.e., two witnesses that give two totally different accounts of presumably the same event.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  March 14, 2016

        Indeed, two different account of an event they did not even witness! That’s part of the reason they are so different.

  13. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 27, 2016

    A question suggested by early Christians’ having argued at length about such minutiae as exactly *how* Jesus was God’s son (though I suspect 99 out of 100 *normal, lay* Christians didn’t give a hoot about it)…

    In your textbook on the Bible, you pointed out that when the the Creation account in Genesis was written, Jews (and other peoples in that region?) believed Earth and the firmament were surrounded by water. And God hadn’t created that water.

    What did early Christians believe about *that*? Did they still believe all that water was out there…and if so, did they still believe God hadn’t created it? If not, had they come up with some other explanation of what existed beyond the “firmament”? Or had they just forgotten the whole thing? (Might the early Jewish Christians have continued to believe the account in Genesis, while Gentiles didn’t?)

  14. Avatar
    Jana  February 27, 2016

    Wow! How simply fascinating. Sorry haven’t any more to add than that … trying to catch up on your blogs.

  15. Avatar
    Hari Prasad  February 27, 2016

    It’s interesting that even the Catholic scholar, Monsignor John P. Meier, in “A Marginal Jew” examines all the traditions of the virgin birth in every source and concludes that it is ahistorical. He agrees that the references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters in the original Greek gospels are accurate. The traditional Catholic explanation that the words for Jesus’ brothers actually referred to “cousins” was an invention of Jerome in 387 A.D. (Incidentally, Matthew’s Mary was only a virgin until the birth of Jesus in his gospel!) Josephus, in discussing the expulsion of the High Priest from his position in 62 A.D. clearly refers to James as the brother of Jesus.

    People in the time of the evangelists didn’t know about genes or two sets of chromosomes, one from each parent. They believed that only the male passed on biological material, the female uterus was only a place which nourished this material until delivery of the baby. What’s even more interesting is why in these days, when biology is taught in schools, the virgin birth of Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels can be taken as factual. Does the ethical message get diluted for believers if they take the accounts as a presentational device by writers trying to make a point? It still sets a high standard to try to love one’s neighbor as oneself!

    Even if the gospels of Mark and John, and the Epistles of Paul, had all referred to the virgin birth, would that make the accounts factual?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 29, 2016

      No, it would make the accounts widely believed.

      • Avatar
        Hari Prasad  March 1, 2016

        Quite so. I meant the question to be rhetorical.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  March 14, 2016

        It seems odd that Meier (in “A Marginal Jew”) would go to work examining traditions of the virgin birth to determine whether or not it was historical. I mean 1. it seems to me that the burden of proof is on those who believe it really happened and 2. it’s prima facie a-historical because it is not something any empirical evidence could confirm.

  16. Avatar
    llamensdor  February 27, 2016

    I found it amusing that when one Harper subsidiary published your book about how Jesus became God, another subsidiary published an alleged rebuttal. Have you ever heard of any other iinstance of the same company attacking its own author–simultaneously?

  17. Jeff
    Jeff  February 27, 2016

    Not only Mark but John as well (in whose gospel we learn of Jesus’ preexistence!) seems cognizant of neither a virgin birth nor a Bethlehem nativity.

    Consider how John’s gospel has Philip responding to Nathaniel’s rhetorical question “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Had you been in Philip’s place wouldn’t you have said (with a big grin on your face), “Ahh, but He was born in Bethlehem!” (then adding, “…and of a virgin, to boot!”) How could Philip not respond this way? I can think of only one explanation: Philip [John] knew nothing of such claims or gave them no credence if he did.

    • Avatar
      Monarch  March 4, 2016

      Jeff, I’ve not seen it considered anywhere, but perhaps the prologue to John refers not to Jesus but to the Baptist. “He was with God in the beginning . . . ” and then a short time later, “There came a man who was sent from God, his name was John.” If you have read James Tabor’s The Jesus Dynasty, he postulates a sweeping theory about the relationship between Jesus and John which has John in the preeminent position, and it has often occurred to me that this prologue may be a remnant of that tradition. Sure, Tabor has been criticized for grasping at some straws, but none of these straws are critical to his argument, and I’ve never seen such a comprehensive, profound, and original theory of what was going on with Jesus (and with John.) I highly recommend the book, and would like to soon formulate a question regarding it to Prof. Ehrman (although I need to first run a search to see if he has discussed it previously.)

  18. Jeff
    Jeff  February 28, 2016

    Bart, a ‘Mail Bag’ question:
    As I have learned from you and others, it is easily established from structure, vocabulary, syntax etc. that the gospels were originally composed in Greek, not Aramaic and that very few folks—even among evangelicals in the Moody mold—would argue otherwise today.

    So, how can those evangelical inerrancy buffs insist—with a straight face—that Jesus’ long discourses in John’s gospel—or any other Jesus quote—are perfect recitations of his words when they were demonstrably composed originally in Greek and not translated from Jesus’ native tongue? Is this not an utterly irrefutable argument against inerrancy?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 29, 2016

      I suppose they could say the written translation was inspired.

      • Jeff
        Jeff  March 1, 2016

        That’s my point. It is [almost] universally agreed that it is NOT a translation at all…that the Greek is the original!

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 14, 2016

      I’ve had a similar thought about all the evangelicals in America who go around preaching and pointing to their English translations of the end of the Revelation of John which was originally in Greek and which said to change not one jot or tittle of its words( not the Bible’s words) thereby using changes from the Greek to make their point.

  19. Avatar
    Rosekeister  February 28, 2016

    While waiting for your latest book, I’ve been reading “Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy: A Journey into a New Christianity Through the Doorway of Matthew’s Gospel” by John Shelby Spong. He believes the gospels are structured following the liturgical year of the Jewish Synagogue. They were not meant to be taken literally and the original Jewish listeners would have known this. This of course is not Bishop Spong’s innovation. He learned this idea from Michael Goulder who did not originate it either.

    I’m curious what you think of the idea of the gospels developing as a result of the division of the Christian Church from the Jewish Synagogue. The Christian church would have developed the gospels to replace the liturgy of the Jewish Synagogue from which it emerged. As the church became more heavily and eventually wholly Gentile, the liturgical roots were lost and the stories came to be considered historical. Bishop Spong’s book makes an interesting contrast to the predominant view of actual events being seen by eyewitnesses who told stories that developed into an oral tradition before being collected into the gospels.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 29, 2016

      Yes, Bishop Spong has been advancing that view for a long time. I’ve never found it very convincing. One problem is that we know virtually NOTHING about early Jewish liturgy….

      • Avatar
        Rosekeister  March 6, 2016

        What Bishop Spong’s book made me think about is that the time of the creation of the NT gospels is also the time of the emergence of the Christian church from the Jewish synagogue (as well as the time of the Jewish Wars). What prompted the NT gospels was the need and desire to have readings about Jesus for the church services. This in turn led to the presentation of Jesus as the new Moses and would naturally follow the Jewish holiday cycle.

        Stories of Jesus had moved from eyewitnesses and was now being recounted by non-eyewitnesses, and also moved from Palestine to Egypt, Syria, Galatia, Greece and Rome. This was a move from one country to other countries, from one language to other languages, from one culture to other cultures and all over a period of 45-70 years. This leads to the conclusion that the majority (perhaps vast majority) of the oral tradition did not originate in eyewitnesses speaking of actual events but rather stories based on the Hebrew scriptures and stories reflecting the current events of the originating communities.

        Do you think that more attention has to be given to the idea that the oral tradition did not necessarily go back to eyewitnesses recounting actual events?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 7, 2016

          I don’t agree with the liturgy angle, but as to eyewitnesses, that’s a large part of what my book is about.

  20. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  February 29, 2016

    I have really been hung up on the word “parthenos”. Trying to find the etymology of some words is difficult. What I found goes something like this: a virgin. a young woman or maiden; extended to men who have not known women. Properly, a virgin. Basically, what that says to me is that the word means a young man or woman who’s a virgin. Both you and Dan Wallace agree that its older meaning was not “virgin”. Both of your brains default to the *right* answer. What I’d like to know is *how* you know this? Where can I find the etymology of Greek words?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 29, 2016

      Hey if Dan Wallace and I agree on something…. The way to know what a word means is to see how it is used in unambiguous contexts in different times and places. That probably would require a working knowledge of Greek in this case.

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  March 1, 2016

        Theoretical physicist Sean Carroll said, just yesterday, that a good rule of thumb is that the less you know about something, the more your credences should be in line with those expert in that thing.
        Good enough for me. Parthenos mean young woman.

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