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Memory, Eyewitnesses, and the Relevance of Jesus: Readers Mailbag

In this week’s Readers’ Mailbag I will deal with three questions, all of them having to do with the historical Jesus:  how has memory studies affected my understanding of Jesus; whether the claim that the Gospels are based eyewitnesses is a new or an ancient attempt to “guarantee” their accuracy; and whether Jesus can be relevant today if his basic apocalyptic view was proven to be wrong.

Good questions, all of them!  If you have any questions about anything involving the New Testament or the history and literature of Christianity in the first four centuries, let me know!

***********************************************************

QUESTION: 

Has your view of the historical Jesus changed at all after your studies into memory?

 

RESPONSE:

My basic view of Jesus has not changed at all.  I continue to think that he was an apocalyptic preacher who proclaimed that he and his listeners were living at the end of the age and that God was (very) soon to intervene and overthrow the evil powers who were in charge of this world in order to bring in a good kingdom in which God himself would rule supreme.   What “memory studies” have done is deepen my understanding of who Jesus was and, more important, helped me understand much better the nature of the Gospels and the traditions they contain.  Among other things, the study of memory has helped me recognize what parts of the Gospel stories are more likely “distorted” memories rather than accurate ones.

Let me give just two quick examples.  The first is from Jesus’ life.  When thinking about memory I started reflecting on the traditions of Jesus’ sayings.   Take the Sermon on the Mount.   It is found only in Matthew 5-7 – three chapters filled with Jesus’ teachings, as if written down at the time, word for word allegedly what Jesus said.  But how could all this material be remembered, verbatim, for the 50 years or so between the time Jesus taught and the time Matthew wrote his account?

Think of it this way: suppose you had to reconstruct …

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Comments

  1. toejam  March 18, 2016

    Thanks for answering my question! (the first one). I’ve finished your book now. I feel similar. My views on Jesus haven’t changed much, but I feel my understanding of the nature of the gospels has improved.

  2. Boltonian  March 18, 2016

    That last answer encapsulates a philosophy not very far removed from Therevada Buddhism (which is the version I am most familiar with). Is the Golden Rule just a fundamental and, therefore, universal, human characteristic, reinforced in theistic belief systems with the idea that ‘Someone is watching you’?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2016

      I’d say you could justify the golden rule without being a theist.

      • Monarch  March 19, 2016

        Very true. The philosopher Immanuel Kant’s famous “Categorical Imperative” states that “If the action is not right for everyone to take, it is not right for anyone,” and Rene Descarte stated that “If the action cannot be taken repeatedly, it is not right to take at all.”

  3. Wilusa  March 18, 2016

    Re Question 3: Personally, I think it’s *demeaning* – to oneself – to hold up as an exemplar *a person who really lived, whom we might, if we knew him, not even have liked*!

    • Rick
      Rick  March 25, 2016

      You touch on a good point… There seems to be a … I hate to call it movement…. that I would call, “certainly he was just a man but he should be followed because he was a very nice guy”. However, much of that no doubt stems from sayings of Jesus, that he didn’t ever say…. Some also no doubt stems from what he probably did say about how people would treat each other in his kingdom to come; and, thus how his followers should treat each other before that. It is those teachings that would seem relevant when interpolated into modern terms – despite the fact that (as I understand our host) Jesus confined that treatment to those who would enter his kingdom – truly righteous Jews.

  4. stokerslodge  March 18, 2016

    Bart, what if you’re wrong…what if there is a supernatural element at work…what if the Holy Spirit (in spite of all the apparent flaws and short comings in the New Testament writings) was working in and through these writers? I’m reminded of something the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas said (about poets and poetry) to a group of American students: “the best craftsmen always leave holes and gaps in their work”. Maybe this is the way God wanted it.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2016

      I’m approaching the question from a historical point of view. If you want to believe something about how God made it the way he did, that would not be a historical but a theological argument. I’m not passing any evaluation one way or the other on that kind of argument, except to say that if it doesn’t seem to fit with what appear to be facts, it is probably problematic.

      • Boltonian  March 19, 2016

        As the atheist Bertrand Russell said when asked what he would say to God if, after he died, he found himself in heaven, ‘You should have provided more evidence.’

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  March 18, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I have a question for your mailbag (I’m only two-thirds of the way through your new book, so I apologize if this is something you tackle in it). When it comes to the likelihood of the disciples remembering something Jesus said, do you take into consideration anything that may have reinforced the memorization of specific utterances — two factors in particular being repetition and mnemonic devices.

    In the first instance, I’m thinking about things such as catchphrases or idiosyncratic expressions, such as “Let me tell ya something” or “Well, how about that?”. These characteristic expressions may be so common to a person’s speech that they can be used to mimic that person (e.g. when you want to mimic Ronald Reagan you might say “Well, there you go again.”) One example from the Gospels that sticks out to me is Jesus’ regular use of the expression “Ho echon ota akoueto” (“Everyone with ears better listen up”), which itself comes from the Hebrew prophets who would say, in Hebrew, “Yishm’a hashome’a”, (“Listeners listen up!”). So to my ears it sounds like Jesus was trying to mimic the prophets by using this expression, and, therefore, he used it regularly, making it relatively easy for his followers to remember that he talked this way.

    In the case of mnemonic devices, I’m thinking in particular of two techniques: rhyme and acrostics. There are at least a couple dozen passages that, to my Hebrew ear, are particularly easy to rhyme in Hebrew (I’ve posted a few in the comments in past blogs). Also, acrostics (the first letter of each line can be combined to form a word or pattern) appears to be a common way for ancient, illiterate men to memorize long passages. Any possibility that some parts of the Gospels were put into an acrostic form for memorization?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2016

      Yes, I would think catch phrases would help, whenever they were available. Not too many rhymes or acrostics in teh sayings of Jesus….

  6. Robert
    Robert  March 18, 2016

    “…the entire episode in the trial narrative where Pilate allegedly released a murderer and insurrectionist Barabbas to the crowds because they asked for him is almost certainly non-historical. There is no record of it anywhere outside of the Gospels, and is completely implausible: but there are good reasons for thinking that Christians would have wanted to invent some such incident, and it very soon entered into Christian “memory,” even though it didn’t actually happen.”

    I agree with the nonhistorical judgement, but do you have any reason to suppose that it is a traditional memory of the community as opposed to the literary creation of the evangelist? It fits in well with political climate of ‘Mark’ writing around the time of the Juwish rebellion when the Judea authoritis and crowds chose rebellion and made the temple into a house of rebels rather than likely path of the Jewish Christians.

  7. Jeff
    Jeff  March 18, 2016

    Bart,
    This, I would argue, is your best post ever. You bring your humanity and compassion seamlessly together with your wisdom and uncompromising scholarship. It should be read by all of Christendom.

    Press On!

  8. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  March 18, 2016

    If I could find a church that translated Christianity into a modern context, as you described, I’d probably still go! I don’t know that any such place exists. I do miss the sense of community and belonging sometimes.

    • Kschramm10  March 19, 2016

      Pattycake1974,

      My Unitarian Univaersalist church has filled that need for me – we emphasize service to the poor and forgotten while respecting the individual search for spiritual truth.

    • randal  March 20, 2016

      I told my wife something similar that if it was like one of Dr Ehrman’s classes, that I would still go.

  9. cheito
    cheito  March 18, 2016

    Dr Ehrman:

    YOUR COMMENT:

    My sense is that followers of Jesus today need to translate his preaching from his own idiom into a modern one. He (and everyone else at the time) was wrong about the coming Kingdom of God.

    MY QUESTION.

    Are you absolutely certain that Jesus said what is recorded in Matthew 16:28?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2016

      Yup, I’m pretty sure.

      • cheito
        cheito  March 19, 2016

        Dr Ehrman:

        I find your answer fascinating considering Scholars don’t really know the author of “Matthew”

        I’m assuming that you also believe everything else Jesus says in “Matthew.”?

        Do you also believe what “Matthew” documents Jesus stating in Matthew 27:45,46?

        45-From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. 46About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli,c lemasabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

        • Bart
          Bart  March 21, 2016

          You should know full well that I don’t believe Jesus said everything found in Matthew!!!

          • cheito
            cheito  March 22, 2016

            So how can you be certain about Matthew 16:28?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 23, 2016

            I discuss all this in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

      • tcasto  April 5, 2016

        Dr. Ehrman, I’m reminded of your forensic analysis, which posits, among other things, that the more a Biblical phrase contradicts the preferred narrative, the more likely it is to be genuine. No one writing decades after Jesus’ death would want to have him say these words, but there they are.

  10. Omar6741  March 18, 2016

    “Think of it this way: suppose you had to reconstruct what you remembered hearing Obama say in his last State of the Union address?”
    I couldn’t; but then is Obama in any way comparable to a religious teacher on whose teachings one’s eternal life depends? Wasn’t there a strong motivation for people to take the time and trouble to memorize Jesus’ teachings that isn’t there in the case of Obama?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2016

      What matters isn’t how significant the person is who is doing the talking; what matters is the brains ability to remember what was said.

      • Omar6741  March 19, 2016

        Fair enough; isn’t it true that those who are motivated at these things can memorize a lot just by virtue of constant repetition, which will enhance the brain’s ability dramatically?

      • BHG1978  March 19, 2016

        I have come to believe that the gospels, the contradictions and the variations in the manuscripts are exactly what we should expect from a totally human effort.

        If the manuscript evidence had miraculous thousands handwritten copies with a “supernatural” spellcheck and accuracy of a xerox 2,000 years too early and just looked amazing in comparison to all other ancient writings, then would not have needed the research in your latest book .

  11. Jana  March 18, 2016

    I am moved by your second to the last paragraph … “People need to commit themselves to the way of God by giving of themselves completely in service to others, to alleviate the pain and misery of this world and to live not just for themselves but for God and others.” In Buddhism preaching such compassion would make Jesus a Bodhisattva or an Enlightened sage. The Buddha too was limited by his era. He initially refused to teach women. So Jesus was an Apocalyptic Prophet and this wasn’t his only message? Thank you too .. it makes sense that the need for apostolic legitimacy could have been a motive for another maneuver …. Jesus’s events were eyewitness accounts faithfully maintained.

  12. Judith  March 18, 2016

    I’ve used all my words of praise on earlier posts and now there are those last two paragraphs. I’ve read them over and over again and want you to know they mean a great deal to me.

  13. Jimmy  March 18, 2016

    Hi Bart, Two quick questions for you, Do you think a copy of Q or copies of anything about Jesus that was written before 70 CE will ever be found?
    What would be the one book that is lost to history that we know about would you like to be found?

  14. Monarch  March 18, 2016

    “What, if any, alternative is there for informed Christians to practice an authentic Christianity?” Good answer, Prof. Ehrman, particularly the “new idiom” take that you suggest for it. Here is my take on some of the elements that might help construct that new idiom. (Forgive my paraphrasing and my lack of chapter and verse, I’m not at my desktop and am very short of time.) For one, part of our problem here is that we always discuss Jesus in the past tense, but in fact, we are supposed to be awaiting a “second coming.” We might well expect this second coming anytime now, for Jesus was raised on “the morning of the third day,” which is now, for Peter, quoting Isaiah, says, “Do not forget this one thing, dear friends, with the Lord a day is a thousand years, and a thousand years is as a day.” Thus, the present, i. e., the beginning of the third millennium, is the “morning of the third day.” Next, Jesus said that “The spirit of Truth, when he comes, will teach you all things, and will remind you or everything I have said to you.” So at the second coming this entity (perhaps the “Son of Man,” whom Jesus always spoke about in the third person?) will again speak these same things that Jesus did in the past, warning of a coming apocalypse (climate change, wars, pollution, overpopulation, etc., I surmise) and, in effect, update Jesus’ message for modern times, and inspire people to follow his message and to help him accomplish his foremost promise, to “save the world.” Scriptural evidence that this second entity is not Jesus, but is essentially the same as Jesus, comes from the OT, with God saying, “Who then is like me, let him declare it!,” and from the NT, with Jesus saying, “Whoever accepts anyone I send, accepts me.” Concerning the new idiom, this entity will say, “See? I am doing a new thing! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Anyway, this is some of the stuff that’s in my book-in-progress on understanding Bible symbolism and the parables of Jesus. Sorry it’s kinda squirrelly there in the middle, but that’s what happens when you attempt to condense a book down to a single paragraph in fifteen minutes or less. Thanks for reading, gotta run!

    • Monarch  March 19, 2016

      Oops, 2 Peter 3:8 and Psalm 90:4, not Isaiah, on the “a day is like a thousand years” thing. Got to doubting my memory (go figure!) and found a moment to look it up.

  15. dragonfly  March 19, 2016

    Do you think Jesus even gave a sermon on the mount? The story of pilate releasing a criminal is completely ridiculous. Imagine the American government every year asking people to vote on which criminal they would like released. I imagine the majority vote each time would be “none!” (followed by wodjer the wobber).

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2016

      No, I don’t think the Sermon on the Mount was a historical event.

      • nichael  March 19, 2016

        I certainly would never dream of putting words in your mouth, but just to make a –I think, not insignificant– clarification: Would you agree that that while we may be fairly certain that a single specific event like the so-called Sermon on the Mount may not have taken place, we can still safely say that it is likely that most, or at least a good number, of the individual sayings may be authentic?

        (For example, I know of at least a couple authors who describe The Sermon on the Mount as a sort of “epitome” in the technical, rhetorical sense: that is, a formal collection of Jesus’ sayings. Or, if you will, a kind of “Jesus’ Greatest Hits”.)

        • Bart
          Bart  March 21, 2016

          No, I would not say that most individual sayings in the Gospels are most likely authentic. (And I would say that each one has to be considered, painstakingly, one at a time.)

          • barrios160679  May 15, 2016

            Bart, sorry if you answered this question before (you probably did) but would you be interested in publishing your version of the “Five Gospels” by Jesus Seminar ranked by the probability of the saying/deed in the Canonical Gospels?
            Also, in a couple of debates you refer to a book you wrote about “what Jesus really said and did”. What was the book you were referring to?
            Thank you very much!

          • Bart
            Bart  May 16, 2016

            Yeah, I’ll probably never do that! Very limited audience! My book is Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

  16. LWE  March 19, 2016

    Nice reasoning, that:

    1. Jesus was completely human.
    2. Errare humanum est.
    3. Therefore, Jesus erred.

    Most historical Christians would likely accuse it of equivocating on “human”.

  17. RonaldTaska  March 19, 2016

    Another tremendous Friday blog.

    it makes me wonder who in the world it was who wrote the Sermon on the Mount and where in the world did he get his ideas???

    The answer to #3 reminds me of Spong’s writing about a “New Christianity.” Why not just call it “humanism”? Is Jesus really necessary if He were not God and His death does not really provide atonement and He does not have personal relationships with today’s Christians? Spong;s view seems like a rather stained attempt to keep Christianity relevant without any of the basic theology.

  18. maryhelena  March 19, 2016

    The gospel Jesus relevant today? Only to believers…… People can do good deeds on a humanitarian basis without any need for a belief that doing so pleases some imaginary Jesus. In fact such a belief calls into question the issue of reward for ones humanitarian action – and thus negates any claim that ones action is purely humanitarian.

    Belief in the ‘Jesus of faith’ does not bring with it a humanitarian world. We only have to look back in Christian history to demonstrate that…..In our modern world the Jesus of faith has become a good luck charm – just in case one needs support from an invisible friend now and again…Such a belief has no relevance for the actual social political world we live in….

    Two thousand years ago that would be people who were in a position to be relevant – not the nobodies. The famous nobodies are a modern phenomenon with the internet, media and TV allowing them their 15 mins of fame. Talk, as they say, is cheap – however great the orator. It’s when words are translated into action that they begin to live – either for good or for bad. Jesus as a nobody then – is a nobody to day, devoid of relevance to anyone but believers.

    As for those who uphold a purely human Jesus: That figure holds no social political relevance; no relevance for the social political environment in which we live.

    Failed apocalyptic prophets, if that is the category one wants to place a historical Jesus in, have no secular relevance. History demonstrates these figures come and go – leaving their followers to pick up the pieces via re-interpretations of the apocalyptic pronouncements – or hand in their membership cards…. Playing the apocalyptic lottery is not a solid grounding upon which to leave a lasting social legacy. A lasting social legacy that, even today, would have relevance for the social political environment in which we live. History throws up it’s heroes as well as it’s villains. Both have relevance to our lives. – but it’s the heroes, the epic heroes, that leave their footprint upon our lives for the good; that leave inspiration in their wake. Offering a nobody Jesus who left no legacy, and thus has no relevance, for our 21st century social political environment is tantamount to disabling the gospel story at it’s knees…..

    If we hold to the idea that a story written around two thousand years ago has relevance to our 21st century existence – then we need to reread that story anew. Reread that story in such a manner that it does have relevance to our lives today. That rereading requires that faith and nobodies have to be sidelined if relevance in that story is to be found.

  19. godspell  March 19, 2016

    Bart, it hadn’t occurred to me to bring this up before now–and I still have to read your new book–but do you get into the issue of people who are born with superior memories? 60 Minutes did a piece on them.

    http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-gift-of-endless-memory/

    There would have been such people back then, certainly. Their gifts would have been recognized and called upon. Now the odds of one of the disciples being one of them are obviously poor, but if Jesus had hundreds of followers, certainly some would have had better powers of recollection than others.

    But leaving that aside, your analogy regarding Obama’s State of the Union is not ideal. We know we can refer to transcripts and video of that speech any time we want, and we are surrounded by endless distractions. Obama is someone many of us respect, but he is not our Revered Teacher. We don’t hang on his every word, no matter how we feel about him. And as President, he’s talking all the time, so one speech tends to blend into another. Few of us ever get to see him speak in person, in a small gathering. But that would be how most of Jesus’ words were received.

    Jesus’ teachings would have been repeated over and over, committed to memory, and yes they would have changed over time, inevitably. But we don’t really have a modern parallel to the power that the spoken word had back then. We live in too different a reality.

    If you look at the sayings of Jesus that appear in the bible–they are not long speeches. They are mainly a collection of aphorisms and parables. Easily committed to memory, and many do so, to this day. I agree we don’t have his exact words, and that often his meaning was altered, but I think it’s a very different thing than remembering the State of the Union address.

    • godspell  March 19, 2016

      And to finish my thought–there are, as I mentioned, people who could listen to the entire State of the Union address, and remember it word for word.

      I don’t know whether to admire such people, or pity them, I honestly don’t.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2016

      Yes, but it’s about, what, one in ten million? What are the chances that the author of Matthew was one of them??

      • godspell  March 19, 2016

        Negligible, but the author of Matthew was obviously not a witness to any of the events he reported. He was drawing upon the memories of witnesses, whether through written records or oral tradition, and some of those witnesses would have had much better memories than others, whether because of innate abilities, or acquired disciplines (which would be extremely valuable in a largely illiterate society).

        There are no extended conversations or long speeches in the gospels. I don’t find it hard to believe that given the intimate and memorable circumstances in which Jesus would have been speaking, the likelihood that he repeated certain sayings and stories often (probably changing them himself at times), and the fact that people would have gone to extra effort to commit them to memory (not being able to write them down), that we have many authentic sayings of his in the gospel record, along with things that were added after the fact.

        Don’t underestimate the power of trained memories. In my grandparents’ native Ireland, in the modern era, there have been ordinary people who were able to memorize extremely long poems and stories, and recite them word for word, with little or no variation. It requires long practice, but in a society where few can read, and there is little in the way of entertainment, people who acquired such abilities were much in demand. Sadly, this tends to die out once more modern entertainments become available, though stage actors obviously keep one version of this tradition alive.

        I can’t remember most of Obama’s State of the Union speeches (or any other President’s), but I can recite the Gettysburg Address. Not all public speech is equally memorable.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 21, 2016

          Take the most memorable speech you ever heard (for example, Martin Luther King, or JFK) and see how well you remember that most memorable one!

          • godspell  March 22, 2016

            I wasn’t even two years old then, Bart. 🙂

            Without ever having made the slightest attempt to commit it to memory, I remember many key phrases perfectly from watching it on television, and so do you.

            I certainly agree we don’t have transcripts of Jesus’ speeches, public or private. We don’t have transcripts of anything anybody said back then. But I can remember many things close friends and acquaintances said to me decades ago, as if they were yesterday. Some things just stick in the memory, and refuse to leave, even if you want them to. Don’t you think there were times when the disciples would have given anything to have forgotten the words “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachtani?”

            Jesus was, to the people who preserved his words and ideas, much more like a friend or family member than a distant awe-inspiring leader.

            That’s why they couldn’t let him go.

            That’s why we can be sure they did the best they possibly could to remember and preserve every word that came from his mouth, and of course they failed to do a perfect job of it. Of course they garbled things, or ‘remembered’ things he’d never said. But some of them would inevitably have been much better rememberers than others, and as they shared their reminiscences among each other (and you know they did that), the picture would have gotten clearer in some ways, more blurred in others, just as people today share memories of a lost loved one.

            If they didn’t care about getting it right, we wouldn’t have that last despairing statement from the cross.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 22, 2016

            Yes, it helps a lot if you can watch (and rewatch) the speech on TV….

          • godspell  March 22, 2016

            It helps and it hurts. We don’t have very good memories these days, I think. We don’t need them anymore. We don’t train ourselves to remember things, unless it’s for a very specific discipline, like medicine or the law. It’s a serious problem, actually–as any historian knows–the way people forget very important events that happened just a short time ago. They just get pushed to the back of our minds by the deluge of information coming at us from every direction. So I think we have to take note of the fact that it wasn’t like this for people living in Palestine in the first century.

            Parenthetically, the MLK speech I most strongly remember isn’t the I Have a Dream speech. It’s the speech he gave just before he was murdered (the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech), where he almost seemed to sense his own death coming. I was young at the time, and they showed it around MLK day, and I was on the verge of tears, as I watched this still young and vital man speak in prophetic terms of how he’d love to live a long life, but he knew he might not get to the promised land with the rest of us. That we’d have to go on without him. We AS A PEOPLE would get to the promised land. Of course, he was speaking primarily to African Americans, but in a larger sense, to all men and women of good will.

            Imagine if you were actually there in that hall, watching him give that speech. Then the next day….

            Imagine historians far in the future, coming across an account of this strange coincidence–this seemingly prohetic event (which of course you don’t need to believe in literal prophecy to explain). Would they believe it? Would you? It seems like something a storyteller made up. It isn’t. Life can be like that.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 23, 2016

            I’d suggest you read some of the work on oral cultures that has been done by people who have actually studied them on the ground. It turns out that what happens among traditions in those contexts is not what we might *expect* intuitively. I especially recommend the books of Jack Goody and Jan Vansina — classics in the field.

          • godspell  March 23, 2016

            I would suggest we are focusing on different parts of the same elephant. 😉

  20. joewaters  March 19, 2016

    Great answers, Bart.

    Like you, I don’t consider myself a Christian in a traditional sense. I was baptized Catholic, but growing up I had little exposure to Christianity beyond a week at vacation bible school at the Baptist church up the street from our house. It was much closer to use than the Catholic church!

    I don’t believe the Gospels capture Jesus’ exact words. I don’t believe in the virgin birth. I don’t think Jesus walked on water. I don’t believe Jesus was raised from the dead. But in reading the Gospels along with your books – and other great books like White’s “Scripting Jesus” – I’ve realized that the Gospels do offer a powerful alternative to the sadness, hate, violence and injustice of our current world. We can have a world with more love, compassion, peace, fairness and justice. Jesus’ ultimate message is that we can choose a better world over the one we have. But we have to act and the time is now.

    For me, the Gospels have never been about believing. It’s about SEEING and ACTING on that better world. And as I tell my “religious” friends, if that’s not what God wants from me then I don’t have to worry about him because he can’t be God.

    Thanks for helping me steer in the right direction, Bart.

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