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The Later De-apocalypticizing of Jesus

Yesterday I started mounting the case that rather than being a zealot interested in a military overthrow of the Romans to reclaim the land for God, Jesus was an apocalypticist who believed that God himself would intervene in history to destroy the forces of evil (presumably including the Romans; and certainly including the Jews who were not “on the right side”) to set up his kingdom.

It is worth re-emphasizing that all over the map in our early sources Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God. He does not speak about the Kingdom of Israel, or about the use of military force (I’ll get to the scattered exceptions eventually), or about “retaking the land.” This is a key point because Aslan thinks that for Jesus it was all about getting rid of the Romans and taking the land back; but Jesus doesn’t talk about that in our earliest sources – even the ones that Aslan cites (as I showed in earlier posts: unlike zealots, Jesus told his followers that they *should* pay taxes to Rome!). He instead talks about the coming Kingdom, to be brought in a cosmic act of supernatural force, by the judge sent from heaven, the Son of Man. (I’ll say more about that figure in a later post.)

In any event, yesterday I showed that the teachings of the coming Son of Man (as opposed to the raising of the Jewish armies) was multiply attested, in all our earliest sources (Mark, Q, M, and L). As an intriguing side note, I want to stress that this heavily apocalypticized message comes to be muted in later sources, the further we get away, in time, from the historical Jesus. I make that point as well in my book on Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet, as follows:


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More Evidence that Jesus was an Apocalypticist
Back to Aslan’s Thesis. An Alternative View: Jesus the Apocalypticist



  1. Avatar
    hwl  December 29, 2013

    Does Aslan engage with and critique the apocalyptic view in the book? (I haven’t read the book yet)
    He lists in the bibliography John Meier’s 4 volumes, Schweitzer’s book, E.P. Sanders (1993) – all of these authors take an apocalyptic view. Either Aslan hasn’t understood their position, or hasn’t engaged with their position.
    For some reason, despite his extensive bibliography, Aslan has omitted the seminal, groundbreaking, lucid, brilliant book by Ehrman (1999). What on earth was he thinking???

  2. Avatar
    kidron  December 30, 2013

    I agree with your conclusions. However, I believe that the ‘trend’ started long before Luke and the other later writers. I think it started with Paul. Paul definitely considered that he would be alive to participate in the establishment of God’s kingdom … however I believe he eventually defines it as a heavenly kingdom … not an earthly one. Those who attained it would have their bodies changed from earthly to heavenly material. He promises that they will be caught up in the clouds to meet the returning Christ … he does not say whether they will all return to earth or continue their ascent to heaven.

  3. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  December 30, 2013


    What happen to Jewish apocalypticism after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE? Could this have also impacted the early Christian movement towards the trend that you described above?

    Thanks a lot!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 4, 2014

      In Jewish circles it started to die out, till it pretty much disappeared (the rabbis opposed it). But it was firmly rooted in Christianity, even if it got transfigured into a different view (heaven and hell instead of the age to come vs. this age).

  4. Avatar
    Adam0685  December 30, 2013

    Unrelated question but what reaseach or writing project are you up to these days?

  5. Avatar
    donmax  December 30, 2013

    “If we were to tally up these data to this point, we’d have a fairly compelling subtotal. Early traditions record apocalyptic teachings on the lips of Jesus. Later traditions generally mute this emphasis. And the latest of our early sources explicitly argue against it. I’d say we have a trend.”

    Yes, and what we end up with is the Great Commission and the expansion of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. But this historic trend is slowing down of late and has never amounted to much in the overall scheme of things in so far as the human population as a whole is taken into account. The following post from my facebook page will demonstrate what I mean.


    The CIA’s World Factbook, gives the human population as 7,021,836,029 (July 2012 est.) and the distribution of religions as Christian 31.59% (of which Roman Catholic 18.85%, Protestant 8.15%, Orthodox 4.96%, Anglican 1.26%), Muslim 23.2%, Hindu 15.0%, Buddhist 7.1%, Sikh 0.35%, Jewish 0.2%, Baha’i 0.11%, other religions 10.95%, non-religious 9.66%, atheists 2.01%. (2010 est.).

    BUT DID YOU KNOW. . . ???
    *The 7 billion men, women and children now alive make up more people at one time on planet earth than ever before in human history. *The number of forbears, however, who lived prior to 2012 is far greater than 7 billion. *According to reasonable estimates, less than 7% of the entire human race is still breathing. *The other 93% are no longer around and have been dead for as much as 50,000 years. *Our ancestors who came and went before us actually approximate 107 billion human beings. *This means that relative percentages of all major religions vis a vis the total number of people must be adjusted downward. *The figures for each should be reduced by slightly more than 90%. *In this scenario, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists only equate to 2%, 1.5%, 1% and .5% of everyone who ever existed. *Taken together these add up to a subtotal somewhere between 5 and 6% of all humanoids.


  6. Fearguth
    Fearguth  December 30, 2013

    The best account I’ve read of the process of ‘de-apocalypticizing’ Jesus message is Schweitzer’s essay, ‘The Conception of the Kingdom of God in the Transformation of Eschatology’ (reprinted in ‘Religion from Tolstoy to Camus’, edited by Walter Kaufmann).

  7. gmatthews
    gmatthews  December 30, 2013

    Wonderfully reasoned! How much do you or other scholars think the 70AD destruction of Jerusalem played in the toning down of the later gospels? It would seem to me that the handful of followers would surely think they had been abandoned when not only did the kingdom of God not come into power, but that the Romans had completely destroyed Jerusalem with no intervention from God. In other words, perhaps they felt they had completely misunderstood the message of Mark’s gospel so they had to back it up and re-envision a scenario (ie, the message in other, later gospels) that could never be left to interpretation: as Luke put it, for example, the kingdom is already with believers.

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 30, 2013

    I know it may be unreasonable to think these long-ago people’s beliefs should, um, make sense. But…when they anticipated a coming Kingdom of God on earth, all the already-dead who’d led good lives were supposed to be brought back to enjoy it. So what, in the “revised” version, would become of those already-dead, who’d never heard of Jesus? Would they be left in Sheol forever? (What if they hadn’t believed in Sheol?)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 31, 2013

      They had a range of answers, including the view that Christ’s death was sufficient for the righteous who lived before his time….

      • Avatar
        bobnaumann  December 31, 2013

        If i recall, the orthodox position is that Jesus descended into Hell (Sheol) to preach to the dead so they might be saved before he was resurrected.

      • Avatar
        judaswasjames  January 2, 2014

        And that’s just one more reason why orthodox Christianity is impossible. Shake loose your fixation on it, Bart. There is a truth hidden beneath the obscurantism. RSSB.org

        • Avatar
          Benevolent  September 26, 2017

          Oh no, not another orthodoxy…

    • gmatthews
      gmatthews  December 31, 2013

      I attended a private non-denominational Christian school from kindergarten to 6th grade and this question (of what happened to the dead before Christ died) first occurred to me when I was about 8 or 9. When I asked my teacher I was told they went to hell, that there was no way around not being born again. Although I didn’t realize it at the time this started the long process of my becoming agnostic.

  9. Robertus
    Robertus  December 30, 2013

    “At Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus boldly states to the high priest, “You will see the son of man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62).”

    I do think that ‘Mark’ still maintained a hope and expectation of an imminent end, but it seems to me that he saw this line of his gospel (14,62) as having already been fulfilled in the destruction of the temple. The plural ‘you’ in 14,62 (high priests, elders, scribes and the whole Sanhedrin) seems to be the best answer to the identity of the ‘they’ in 13,26, quoted in the context of Mark’s final teaching on the destruction of the temple and imminent end. If any elements of 8,38-9,1 were traditional sayings of Jesus predating the composition of Mark’s gospel, he seems to have interpreted them with 13,26 and 14,62. This would be how he dealt with any delay of the parousia or cataclysmic end within the generation of Jesus’ disciples.

    • Avatar
      judaswasjames  January 2, 2014

      Robertus: “At Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus boldly states to the high priest, “You will see the son of man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62).”


      No, he didn’t. JAMES did! Hegesippus records it, and Hegesippus is as early a witness as some of the gospels, before the church took over things. Look at the end of paragraph FOUR:


      Look now at the end of paragraph FIVE. See anything familiar?

      There are dozens of clues from multiple sources, and at least one modern scholar — Dr. Robert Eisenman — showing that James was the real Messiah. judaswasjames.com


      This dichotomy is the most bizarre disconnect in history.

  10. Avatar
    Pieter Zwanepoel  December 30, 2013

    The moment one quote’s from the New Testament as if Jesus actually said it, I’m sceptical. Well, did Jesus actually say it, or did someone say that someone said that someone said that Jesus said it?

    • Avatar
      judaswasjames  December 31, 2013


      Absolutely correct. Bart quotes Luke 9:27 without the “in power” of Mark’s version as an example of Apocalypticization detuned, but doesn’t credit Matthew which is equally early in the Hebrew where is says “Truly I tell you that some who stand here will not taste of death until they see the SON OF MAN’S KINGDOM THAT COMES.” – Matthew 16:26 Du Tillett Hebrew Matthew. (Rives. page 134). It isn’t the Son here, but the kingdom, just as Luke’s. It is the Pauline CHURCH that changed it, not the aging of the tradition that changed it. Since ‘the Son’ comes within (the ‘second coming’), it is really the same thing, but this was not known then, nor is it known now. The Qumran Jamesian church retained the mystic present life appearance of the Master as Messiah ben Aaron, the inner form of the Righteous Teacher, same as Masters of today do at Beas, India (www.RSSB.org).

      Hebrew Matthew is original Matthew, unlike some who say it is a translation from Greek to Hebrew. At 27:37 in the Greek, Matthew has “And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus, King OF THE JEWS”. In the Hebrew it is the less antiSemitic “King OF ISRAEL”, as it is also in BOTH Greek and Hebrew Matthew at 27:42: “He saved others; he cannot save himself, He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” Hebrew Matthew is the ORIGINAL Matthew. (The Original Gospel of Matthew, Stanford Rives, Esq., and Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, George Howard)

      Also, this isn’t Jesus anyway at all. It is JAMES. Look at the famous quotes given to Jesus which were actually James’ in Hegesippus, from the trial of JAMES, introduced into the canon as quotes from Jesus at HIS trial.

      “You will see Son coming in Power and on the clouds of heaven” and “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” by James at the end of paragraphs four and five:

      The entire gospel narrative is an overwrite of the life, Mastership, and death, of James the Just — with an invented Jesus, perpetrated by early Pauline church forces. The early traditions are like in gThomas, where James is the leader of the Assembly after Jesus, given loftier praise than even Jesus is given in the canon: “Go to James, for whom heaven and earth came into Being” – logion 12, Gospel of Thomas.

      First Apocalypse and Second Apocalypse of James and Gospel of Judas likewise have this early tradition of James as successor, with mystic immediate salvation and appearance of the Master to the devotee WHILE LIVING. It is overwritten in the “Betrayal” fantasy of the canon (John 13:19, “I am HE”, meaning Jesus IS James, mystically). http://www.judaswasjames.com/

  11. Avatar
    webattorney  December 30, 2013

    Your argument is convincing. Do you believe Jesus actually said that he is Son of God and that no one can go to God except through him? If he did really say this, don’t you think either he’s crazy (if he really believed this). But for a crazy guy, he acted in a very sane manner in other aspects. He must have had some ultra-human powers for him to have said this, because if I heard someone say this now, I would crack up, unless I actually saw him perform some miracles — still then, I might have some doubts, although I might consider what he’s saying as a slight possibility.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 31, 2013

      No, I don’t think he said that.

    • Avatar
      judaswasjames  January 1, 2014

      He said he was “the Way” in John 14:6, but the very next verse says “…now you have seen Him [the Father]”, a clear indication that the salvation he offered was for those PRESENT only.

      ONLY LIVING MASTERS SAVE. John 9:4-5 (‘sent US’ – C. Sinaiticus) and Sant Mat (www.RSSB.org)

  12. Avatar
    doug  December 30, 2013

    I agree that Jesus predicted that the Kingdom of God would come on Earth in the first century and that early Christians believed that. My question is: since this was a central teaching of Jesus (and apparently of the apostles), how were the Christian leaders (from the late 1st century onward) able to ignore the fact that Jesus’ prediction was wrong (i.e., the physical Kingdom of God on Earth did not come)? It would seem that a major prediction that did not come true would be a huge elephant in the room – hard to ignore. Did they not know that the earliest Christians believed the Kingdom would come on Earth in their lifetime? Apparently most second century Christian leaders reinterpreted those teachings away from an imminent Kingdom of God on earth. But how did they justify changing the previous teachings of Jesus and the apostles about the Kingdom of God? Did those leaders convince themselves that their change to Jesus’ Kingdom of God message was actually the same as what Jesus taught?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 1, 2014

      In some ways, that was the beginning of Christian theology — the attempt to make sense of Jesus and his teachings in the new situation.

  13. Avatar
    Michael Burgess  December 31, 2013

    If I was illiterate and living in first century Palestine, I’d probably notice some sick people died and some people got better and I’d probably attribute that to the latest miracle worker had passed by. For Jesus to be credible, all he would need would be a reputation and a boatload of charisma.

  14. Avatar
    Michael Burgess  December 31, 2013

    When the author of Mark wrote Mark, he didn’t know somebody was going to write Luke, Matthew and John.

    I seem to get the idea (entirely from a smorgasbord appreciation of your scholarship) that the passage of time (no apocalypse) and the development of the early church inspired the later gospel writers to shift some goal posts away from the apocalyptic Jesus and to accommodate a more messianic and ultimately divine interpretation of Jesus.

    Each later gospel, I suppose, might have been intended to change the general collective message by creating a gloss on what went before. Presumably the authors of the gospels never imagined the four books would ever be circulated together in one collection.

    The circulation of copied manuscripts around the eastern Mediterranean during the final decades of the first century could be expected to be a haphazard business.

    Is it possible each author would have had some expectation that his work would be read in isolation after all rival gospels vanished into obscurity?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 2, 2014

      I guess we’ll never know! Luke, at least, seems to hope that others will see that his Gospel surpasses the otherse he knew of.

  15. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 31, 2013

    Even if Jesus didn’t actually say anything like “No one can come to the Father except through me,” you believe he did deliver those lines about how if people had aided the poor, visited the imprisoned, etc., they’d been aiding *him*; and if they’d refused aid, they’d been refusing *him*. You’ve said that passes the criterion of dissimilarity, because he was stressing (as the early Christians weren’t) the importance of good works as opposed to mere belief in his sacrifice. But he was also putting an unpleasant emphasis on *his* importance! *Taking for granted* that his listeners would be horrified at the thought of refusing aid to *him*, as distinct from refusing it to anyone else.

    I might be able to respect a person who’d thought he was the Messiah if he’d started out as a humble preacher, and his *followers* had – with great difficulty! – convinced *him* that was his destiny. But there doesn’t seem to be any hint of that in Christian tradition.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 4, 2014

      Yes, like a lot of preachers, he thought he was right, and not to agree with him made you wrong!

  16. talitakum
    talitakum  January 1, 2014

    You say that “the coming Son of Man … was multiply attested, in all our earliest sources (Mark, Q, M, and L)”
    However, our earliest source – Paul – never mention such Son of Man.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 2, 2014

      Right! It’s an important point. I do think that Paul is referring to Son of Man imagery in 1 Thess. 4:13-18; but he realizes that the pagan converts he’s addressing don’t have any history with the term. In any event, I was referring to our earliest sources for the historical Jesus, and Paul says scarcely anything at all about him.

      • Avatar
        judaswasjames  January 2, 2014

        Paul says scarcely anything at all about him.

        Doesn’t that fact make you wonder about his existence?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  January 3, 2014

          You need to read my book, where I deal with this head on.

          • Avatar
            judaswasjames  January 4, 2014

            Which one? You have about a xillion.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  January 6, 2014

            The ones on the apocalyptic Jesus.

          • Avatar
            judaswasjames  January 7, 2014

            Maybe you’ll get into it here. I don’t want any more of your books, unless you do another “Orthodox Corruption”.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

            Then you may want to read Forgery and Counterforgery.

  17. Avatar
    Steefen  January 2, 2014

    Bart Ehrman:
    the teachings of the coming Son of Man (as opposed to the raising of the Jewish armies) was multiply attested, in all our earliest sources (Mark, Q, M, and L). As an intriguing side note, I want to stress that this heavily apocalypticized message comes to be muted in later sources, the further we get away, in time, from the historical Jesus.

    As we move from Mark , the Evangelist, to John, the Evangelist, Jesus becomes greater than John the Baptist.
    The Evangelist makes him Son of God (For God so love the world that he gave his only begotten Son).

    Dr. Ehrman, how can one not conclude Jesus (and the Son in the Christian Trinity) is a man-made God?

    Gods can be notions of God (as well as objects in the Solar System). People say in Michaelangelo’s painting of God and Adam (Sistine Chapel), the robe of God means God is in the head of Man? http://www.thecaveonline.com/APEH/michelangelosbrain.html

    Maybe you answer yes in your book How Jesus Became God, which comes out when? In the Spring?

  18. talitakum
    talitakum  January 2, 2014

    Thanks for your answer! I think that Paul may have decided to not use “Son of Man” title for theological reasons (he prefers to develop a sophisticated “Lord” title), but I have no doubt that “Son of Man” belongs to historical Jesus’ speeches.
    It is true that recipients of Paul’s letters were probably not acquainted with the “Son of Man” title, but couldn’t we say the same for Mark and Luke’s readers?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 3, 2014

      Good point! But in telling stories about Jesus (rather than developing one’s own theology in pagan territory) it was probably hard to get around the Son of Man sayings….

  19. Avatar
    Steefen  January 2, 2014

    Is there any line of reasoning that the Son of Man with a kingdom of righteousness did do the will of God through Rome? (We know Josephus thinks so because he calls Vespasian the Messiah.

    If Jerusalem did not glorify Jesus’ introduction of the kingdom, then Jerusalem is destroyed. That’s in character with the God of the Old Testament / Hebrew Bible.

    Bart Ehrman:

    Those who believe experience a “heavenly birth” (John 3:3, 5); they already have eternal life and do not have to face any prospect of judgment in the future, for good or ill (5:24). In this Gospel, Jesus does not utter his apocalyptic message at all except for in a couple of older traditions, like the one found in John 5:28-29. In fact, the older view – that there will be a day of judgment and a resurrection of the dead at the end of the age – is here debunked in view of the newer view, that in Jesus a person can already be raised into eternal life.


    Everyone doesn’t get the message given Revelation and so many sermons about the coming judgment. I thnk Catholic doctrine even has purgatory until judgment. So, you are saying Jesus was de-apocalypticized but some segments of Christianity maintain an apocalypse.

    Wait a second, one of Jesus’s sayings deals with the wheat and the weed to be sorted out later as a saying about a future judgment. So, the de-apocalypticizing was not Jesus’ message. Jesus’ message is being reversed given a post-failed Revolt culture.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 3, 2014

      No, I don’t know of anyone thinking that Rome was the Son of Man (since it didn’t do what the Son of Man was supposed to do — such as destroy everyone who rejected Jesus, not just Jerusalem)

      • Avatar
        Steefen  January 6, 2014

        Dr. Ehrman,

        The problem is not just Jesus failing as an earthly Son of Man and Messiah but any prophecy that informed his Son of Man and Messiah notion (Daniel, Zecharia, First Enoch).

        I was hoping my faith is justified by the prophecy/prophecies coming true even through Rome just as God worked his punishment through those who put Jews into exile (Babylonian) and those who ended the exile.

        You do not seem to address credibility earned by prophecies coming true as you stated earlier that your apocalyptic prophet book does not address Jesus losing credibility points because the Kingdom did not come to those living in his day and the Temple establishment did not see the Son of Man as he declared.

        The book of Zechariah MUST lose credibility with Son of Man/Messiah failing to materialize.

        Not only does Jesus lose credibility but Daniel, Enoch, Zechariah, the God and/or the Our Father that informed them all take responsibility for leading people on to an unsuccessful intention.

        Josephus has an earthly messiah that doesn’t prove God failed: Vespasian and Titus.

        You say Rome cannot be the Son of Man because that Son of Man needed to destroy everyone who rejected Jesus. This sounds like Jesus’ parable who would have those who did not accept him slain in front of him.

        Jesus was not the successful Son of Man. So, we must say: NEXT. As for who was next, we only have Vespasian, Titus, and Simon bar Kokhbah. Although embarassment is a criterion of historicity. I think God failed us is way too embarassing. Given the zealots and the Zealot party, we can’t say the people weren’t faithful and needed to be punished. The Temple establishment were unfaithful and the Temple was destroyed. There’s the divine justice and righteousness of the Son of Man.

        “What do I want?” readers may ask. I want to make sure the God of Zechariah and Enoch still deserves faith or should I become an atheist to these two notions of God. THAT’S WHAT’S ON THE LINE HERE.

        Thank you, and I look forward to your reply.

        This is what I’m finding about First Enoch:

        The older sections (mainly in the Book of the Watchers) are estimated to date from about 300 BC, and the latest part (Book of Parables) probably was composed at the end of the 1st century BC

        I’m saying Jesus (dying in 36 C.E.) could have been exposed to First Enoch material (oral tradition).

        As for Zechariah:

        Some scholars accept the book as the writings of one individual. For example, George Livingstone Robinson’s dissertation on chapters 9–14[4] concluded that those chapters had their origin in the period between 518 and 516 BC and stand in close relation to chapters 1–8, having most probably been composed by Zechariah himself. However, most modern scholars believe the book of Zechariah was written by at least two different people.[5]

        Zechariah 1–8, sometimes referred to as First Zechariah, was written in the 6th century BC.

  20. Avatar
    James Dowden  January 3, 2014

    Happy New Year, Bart! Thinking about exceptions, the military force bit focusses mainly on the disciples’ being armed in the Garden, right? As for kingship of Israel, what I can think of is:
    1) Mark 15.32 (and parallels) “let Christ, the King of Israel, come down from the cross”. On one level, it’s interesting that this is one of only two instances of “Israel” in Mark – the other being the quote of the Shema in 12.29 – but on another level, it’s almost functioning as a definition of Χριστός. And this raises the question, what on earth can it possibly mean to be the Χριστός if God himself is the king of the proclaimed kingdom? At the very least, this is a big point of tension in Mark.
    2) Matthew 19.28 // Luke 22.30 (and Thomas somewhere IIRC?) “you shall sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel”. Strange promise, especially given the Judas factor.
    3) Luke 24.21 “we had hoped that it was he who would redeem Israel”. Probably just Luke weaving his de-apocalypticizing work?
    4) Acts 1.6 “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (As (3)?)
    5) There seems to be a huge national theme running through Luke’s infancy narrative, and especially the canticles contained in it. But this is probably the most de-apocalypticized tier of tradition.
    6) In Paul, the Kingdom of God doesn’t seem very apocalyptic; it seems rather to be an ethical totem (Rm 14.17; 1Co 4.20; 6.9-10; 15.50; Gal 5.21; 1Th 2.12). The big exception seems to be 1Co 15.24, right in the middle of one of those tear-your-hair-out sections that only Paul could write.
    But that’s probably a massive pre-emption job! Looking forward to a 2014 full of interesting reading!

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