Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Luke's nativity account

1. At the bottom of this post I'm going to reproduce an essay about Richard Bauckham. He's unduly skeptical, but still has some useful info. If we date Luke's Gospel to the late 50s or thereabouts, then I don't see why Mary couldn't be a direct source, since she may well have been a teenager when she bore Jesus. Barring that, Luke might well have access to informant like James and Jude, who'd have family lore at their fingertips.

2. An objection to Mary as one of Luke's informants is that Luke doesn't mention the flight to Egypt. Also, Lk 2:39 is pretty abrupt if Luke was aware of the intervening events. There are three potential explanations for the omission:

i) Luke doesn't report the flight to Egypt because Mary wasn't an informant

ii) Luke doesn't report the flight to Egypt even though Mary was an informant because she didn't tell him about it

iii) Even though Mary told him about it, Luke had some reason not to include it

Let's run back through these:

(i) is possible. However, assuming the historicity of the Lucan nativity anecdotes, Mary is naturally the ultimate source of information. However, this could be mediated through the siblings of Jesus. But if so, that still doesn't explain the omission of this particular incident, given the other nativity anecdotes.

(ii) When I look back on my late relatives, it's striking how little they said about their past. It usually came down to a handful of stock anecdotes which they periodically repeated. Although they had detailed recollections of their life, they rarely talked about most of what happened to them, including important things. You could get more information if you questioned them, but it takes some background information to know what to ask. 

Or they might volunteer something if a conversation happened to prompt them to relate an incident from their past. One time when we took my grandmother to church, they had a period where parishioners could mention something that happened to them that week. My grandmother seized the occasion to discuss her conversion experience. Not only was that the first time I ever heard her tell that story, even though I knew her well, that was the first time my mother heard her tell that story. My grandmother was in her mid-80s at the time, yet this is the first time she had occasion to mention that in my mother's presence. People can keep very significant things to themselves most of the time. 

In addition, as one Synoptic scholar said to me, one has to be careful on insisting what events a person might raise. Since Luke had already made clear that the family was from Galilee, there was little reason to mention the flight to Egypt. They just eventually ended up living in their homeland.

(iii) Perhaps Luke didn't include it because the flight into Egypt is politically sensitive. It raises questions about the Roman administration of Palestine. That's not a problem for Matthew's Jewish audience, but if Luke's Gospel is addressed to a Roman official, then Luke might wish to avoid opening that can of worms. 

Richard Bauckham, “Luke’s Infancy Narrative as Oral History in Scriptural Form,” in The Gospels: History and Christology: The Search of Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI, ed. Bernardo Estrada, Ermenegildo Manicardi and Armand Puig i Tàrrech (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013) vol. 1, 399-417.

Is there any reliable history in the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel? Raymond Brown’s landmark commentary on the two infancy narratives found hardly anything more than the few points that Matthew and Luke have in common: the names of Jesus’ parents, the connexion with Nazareth and so forth – but none of the events Luke recounts. Many other scholars would agree. Luke has created these narratives out of Old Testament models and for christological purposes. It is, of course, indubitable that in these chapters Luke is constantly looking back to the Old Testament and forward to the rest of his Gospel, forging connexions in both directions, engendering rich and complex christological meaning. That most commentators now focus on those dimensions and avoid the very difficult issues of historicity is understandable. I might do so myself in a different context. But older scholarship did not regard the history and the theology as mutually exclusive, and there are some genuine reasons, as I shall explain, why the historical questions have not gone away, much as some scholars wish they would. In order to pick them up again, tentatively as is appropriate in the era after Brown, a good place to begin is the issue of genre.

The question of genre

Any attempt to identify history in Luke’s infancy narrative must begin with the issue of literary genre, since this would strongly affect the extent to which readers would expect to find some kind of history in this part of Luke’s Gospel. I agree with those scholars, now perhaps a majority, who place the canonical Gospels broadly within the ancient genre of biography, the life of a famous person. In addition, I have argued elsewhere that, as biographies written within living memory of their subject or at least close to living memory, they would have been expected to embody the testimony of eyewitnesses, as good contemporary history and biography did. Luke, uniquely among the Gospels, includes a historiographical prologue, in which he at least professes to employ best historical practice, in particular dependence on eyewitnesses. In my view, most scholars have been too cautious in envisaging what this claim implies. I think it is likely to mean that Luke was in direct contact with some eyewitnesses, perhaps in second-hand contact with others, and that some of his research for his Gospel (together with Acts) would have involved interviewing such people, as historians and authors of the more historiographical sort of biography did. When he used literary sources, it was because he was assured that these sources were themselves based in eyewitness testimony. 

I should say at once that when Luke’s preface refers to ‘those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses’ he does not, as has sometimes been claimed, mean ‘from the very beginning of his story (including the infancy narrative),’ because parallels in his own work make it clear that the beginning is that of Jesus’ public career, at his baptism, and these eyewitnesses were disciples who accompanied Jesus from that time onwards. This particularly important category of eyewitness is the one highlighted in his prologue, but it does not exclude Luke’s dependence also on other eyewitnesses. Of course, in the case of his infancy narrative, readers would not expect Luke to have had direct contact with eyewitnesses. That he was lucky enough to meet Mary before her death is unlikely, even if not completely impossible. We should also note that the infancy narrative does not actually read like other parts of Luke’s Gospel. It has very distinctive features that legitimate the question: would readers have expected it to be the same kind of history or, indeed, history at all?

Greco-Roman biographies often, though not always, begin with some account of the origins and youth of their subjects. Standard elements include (1) family background and ancestry, (2) birth, (3) portents and prophecies of future destiny, dating from around the time of birth, (4) appearance, (5) character as already manifest in childhood, (6) education, and (7) childhood anecdotes, which often show characteristics or abilities of the adult man already present prodigiously in the child. Of these, probably the first element (family) is the most commonly found, no doubt because it was considered very important and some information about it was usually available. None of the other elements is always present and some of them occur only rarely. The birth, for example, often goes unmentioned, no doubt because there was nothing to be said. The biographers supplied material in these categories only when they had sources, written or oral, from which to do so. Of course, this doesn’t mean such material is necessarily reliable. Some of it is probably among the least reliable material in these biographies, but the biographers whose work we know did not usually make it up. It is worth making this point especially about the reports of supernatural or remarkable forms of conception or birth (which are very few) and the portents and prophecies of future destiny (which are somewhat more common). As is sometimes quite explicit in Plutarch and Suetonius, for example, such stories had long been in oral circulation, if not in writing, when the biographer recorded them. Sometimes the biographers are careful not to commit themselves to the truth of such stories when they record them. They do not abandon their critical faculties when they recount such material, and if they seem to us more credulous here than elsewhere, we should remember that most people had no doubt that portents and prophecies do occur. 

Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ birth and infancy obviously ticks several of these standard boxes: (1) family background and ancestry (especially if we include the genealogy from chapter 3, but prominent even in chapters 1-2), (2) birth, (3) prophecies of future destiny (made by angels and prophets), (7) a childhood anecdote that anticipates key features of the adult Jesus. To that extent Luke’s infancy narrative conforms to the Greco-Roman biographical model. Other features, however, do not: for example, the fact that Luke tells a continuous chronological narrative and the fact that the canticles are a major feature (albeit a means of prophesying the child’s destiny). Add to that the biblical style and the frequent biblical allusions, especially to biblical prophecy, and we can see that, while Luke’s infancy narrative does fill the place of the preliminary material in a Greco-Roman biography, Luke has chosen here to write a specifically Jewish kind of historiography, no doubt both because this was appropriate to Jesus’ actual origins and because Luke’s overriding purpose is to depict Jesus as the fulfilment of Israel’s messianic hopes.

The canticles are a prime example of a Jewish historiographical convention, which can be seen in the Hebrew Bible (the songs of Moses, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah and David), in the books of Judith and Tobit, and in the Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo, an important example because it dates from around the same time as Luke’s Gospel. They are a means of commenting on the significance of the events in the narrative, and, and unlike most scholars (including even Brown) I see no reason to doubt that Luke himself composed the songs in his infancy narrative, as doubtless Pseudo-Philo did those in his work. We should also see Luke’s creative hand in the speeches and dialogues, which along with the canticles convey much of the rich christological meaning of the infancy narrative. Given Luke’s skill and versatility as a writer, I do not think it likely that he had literary sources for his infancy narrative, and we certainly have no hope of reconstructing them. However, when everything appropriate is said about Luke’s biblical inspiration and creative composition in this section of his Gospel, I do not think we should forget his profession of historiographical practice in his prologue. After all, by synchronizing his narrative with broader history (in the references to Herod the king, the emperor Augustus and Quirinius the governor) Luke not only makes an ideological point about the significance of his narrative but also shows that he thinks he is writing some kind of history.

It seems to me likely, therefore, that Luke researched this part of his Gospel in the way that historians did: by interviewing people who could tell him stories about Jesus’ birth and early life (as well as those of John the Baptist). The main outlines of his narrative could be called oral history in this sense, and in my title I have therefore called the infancy narrative “oral history in scriptural form,” to acknowledge the way that biblical precedent and biblical prophecy have thoroughly informed the way he has told the story. That his oral sources already included some reflection on the significance of the events in the light of Scripture is likely, but difficult to verify.

The question of sources

A historian’s work is no better than his sources and we cannot assume that, if Luke had sources, they were reliable ones. Since the story is a family history, any reliable material would have to come ultimately from inside the family, presumably from Mary herself. Many scholars in the past, of course, have argued precisely that Mary is Luke’s ultimate source in these chapters. The popularity of such a view has declined in parallel with a general loss of confidence in the historical value of the infancy narrative. Few commentators now read Luke’s repeated statement that ‘Mary treasured all these things in her heart’ as an indication of his eyewitness source, a view that used to be common. However, in my view there are two reasons at least for thinking that Luke may after all have based his narrative on traditions he learned from the family of Jesus. Both are controversial. The first depends on the view, which I hold, that the ‘we’ passages in Acts indicate the presence of Luke, the author, at the events. In that case, Luke himself tells us that he met James the Lord’s brother when he accompanied Paul on Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem. In the succeeding period he would have had ample opportunity to speak with James and quite plausibly also with other relatives of Jesus.

That argument is not new. My second reason for thinking Luke may have depended on what he learned from the family of Jesus is more distinctive. It requires me to mention briefly an argument I have made elsewhere in detail. Julius Africanus, who evidently had access to Palestinian Jewish Christian traditions about the relatives of Jesus, tells us that they used the family genealogy in their evangelistic preaching. No doubt, they used it to demonstrate Jesus’ status as the Davidic Messiah. I have argued that Luke’s genealogy, which he inserts into his narrative in chapter 3, looks very much like just such a genealogy as the relatives of Jesus would have used. Like many an ancient genealogy, it both preserves a traditional line of descent and has been manipulated for symbolic, especially numerical, purposes, of which Luke himself shows no awareness. It cannot be adequately explained without both factors, and therefore much the most plausible source from which Luke could have got it is the family of Jesus themselves. If he did, then clearly he was also in a position to learn other family traditions too.

However, against the hypothesis that Luke’s infancy narrative has sources that included good historical information, many scholars argue that it is discredited by its clear historical mistakes and implausible accounts. There are two passages in particular that have been frequently judged to lack historical plausibility: the account of the census (2:1-5) and the narrative of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple (2:22-24). Unlike the virginal conception, where issues beyond the ordinarily historical are at stake, these two accounts raise only quite ordinary questions for historical assessment. Moreover, these two accounts really need to be judged at least basically historical if it is to be credible that Luke had any reliable information about events connected with Jesus’ birth. 

The census in fact continues to be vigorously debated, with new evidence and new theories being advanced. The case against a historical basis for the connexion Luke makes between a census and the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem has certainly not yet proved conclusive. But in the case of the presentation in the Temple, the apparently devastating critique of the historical plausibility of Luke’s account, made by a series of prominent scholars, has not been effectively challenged. Since Brown’s and Fitzmyer’s commentaries there has been hardly any substantial discussion of the historical issues. So I shall devote what time I have left to this issue.

The presentation in the Temple (2:22-24)

In 2:22-24 Luke describes how Joseph and Mary carried out two requirements of Torah: (1) the purification of a woman after childbirth and (2) the presentation and redemption of a firstborn son. Many scholars think that Luke has misunderstood and muddled these Jewish customs and constructed a purely fictional event. Raymond Brown says that Luke ‘has created a setting [for the meeting with Simeon and Anna] from an inaccurate reading of Old Testament laws.’ The charges against Luke’s accuracy are these: (1) Luke has confused the two distinct customs and seems to think the sacrifice of two birds was required for the presentation of the firstborn son, rather than for the purification of Mary, while he says nothing about what actually had to be done for the child: the payment of five silver shekels. 
(2) Luke evidently thinks the Torah required the firstborn son to be presented in the Temple in Jerusalem, whereas in fact the redemption price could be paid to any priest in any location.
(3) There is a chronological difficulty in conflating the two customs, because the Torah requires the child to be redeemed at the age of one month, while the mother’s purification is not completed until forty days after the birth.
(4) Luke refers to ‘their purification,’ whereas in fact only the mother required purification.
More than one scholar concludes that Mary could not have been a source of information for Luke, since she surely would have got these matters right.

I shall take the four charges in turn:

(1) The charge that Luke has confused the two customs has been effectively answered by those who have pointed out that the account has a chiastic structure (as shown on your handouts). Reference to the purification at the beginning and the end of the passage (A and A1) frame the reference to the presentation of the child to the Lord (B and B1), which is thereby highlighted as the most important topic. Once we have answered the charge of confusion we can see that Luke does refer to the payment of the redemption price in v 27, when he says that they did ‘for the child what was customary under the law.’ Since Luke’s interest is in the dedication of the child to the Lord, he does not make explicit that money was paid to buy the child back, but shows he knew this is what happened. There is no other custom to which the phrase in v 27 could refer.

(2) The claim that the law of the firstborn did not require the child to be taken to the Temple is often stated very dogmatically. For example, Joseph Fitzmyer says that presentation of the child in the Temple ‘is a custom about which nothing is said in either the Old Testament or the Mishna. Such a custom for a firstborn son is simply unknown in Jewish tradition.’ In the face of such an emphatic assertion, it is remarkable how unambiguous is the evidence to the contrary.

In Numbers 18 there is a catalogue of the offerings that the people are to bring to the Tabernacle (later the Temple) and that will belong to Aaron and his sons the priests. It includes this: ‘The first issue of the womb of all creatures, human and animal, which they offer to the LORD, shall be yours, but the firstborn of human beings you shall redeem.’ The phrase ‘to offer to the LORD’ (Hiphil of qārab + YHWH) occurs 43 times in the Hebrew Bible, mostly in Leviticus and Numbers, and it invariably refers to the offering of sacrifices in the Tabernacle or the Temple. There can be no doubt that the Torah here requires the firstborn son to be presented to the Lord in the Temple. But, lest anyone be still in any doubt, the text is interpreted for us in Nehemiah 10:35-36, where the people pledge themselves to obey the commandments of Numbers 18: ‘We obligate ourselves … to bring to the house of our God, to the priests who minister in the house of our God, the firstborn of our sons and of our livestock, as it is written in the law …’ Nehemiah 10 is a significant passage, the earliest example of halakah outside the Torah itself interpreting the laws of the Torah. Moreover, it is undoubtedly priestly halakah, a better guide to the way the Temple authorities in the time of Jesus would have interpreted the law than anything we might find in the rabbis. We might also note that in these passages, as elsewhere in the Torah, the offering of the child is the primary concern, whereas the redemption, though assumed, need not even be mentioned. Luke, it turns out, knew the requirements of Torah a good deal better than his modern critics.

(3) In the light of that clear requirement of Torah, it appears that, in the case of a firstborn son, the parents are to present the child in the Temple when it is a month old and then, just ten days later, the mother, at least, must travel to the Temple again for her purification. Since few mothers would leave their month-old child at home, and few fathers would let their wife and baby travel alone to Jerusalem, we are looking at two journeys by both parents, with the child, a mere ten days apart. Few people, unless they lived in Jerusalem, are likely to have done this. It is reasonable to suppose that the presentation of the child would often be postponed until the time of the purification of the mother. The rule that the child should be one month old could well have been interpreted as putting only a lower, not an upper limit, on the time at which he could be presented.

(4) What is probably the best textual reading in v 22 refers to ‘their purification,’ meaning, most likely, Mary’s and Joseph’s purification. If this is simply an error on Luke’s part, it is extremely difficult to see how he could have made such a mistake. He certainly read the only passage in the Torah that deals with purification after childbirth (Lev 12:1-8), since he quotes it, and the passage makes no reference at all to the father. It is easier to think that Luke uses a popular, not strictly accurate, way of referring to the purification of the mother, who would usually have been attended by her husband. A more precise explanation of a popular usage of this kind may be possible if we remember that impurity is often communicable to others. Here the matter becomes rather technical. The Torah describes the purification of the mother in two stages. For the first seven days she has a status equivalent to that of a menstruating woman. For the remaining thirty-three days she has a lesser degree of impurity that prevents her entering the Temple. But could she, in this second stage, still communicate impurity to other people? According to the Mishna, the two Pharisaic houses of Hillel and Shammai disagreed. Hillel said she could not, but the Shammai, stereotypically always the more strict, held that she could. In that case, Joseph, assuming he was in close contact with Mary, would himself have been impure for more or less all of her forty days of purification. His would be a lesser degree of impurity, quickly and easily removed without attending the Temple, but since her purification would in effect remove the source of his impurity, it could have been considered ‘their purification.’ We do not know whether Joseph and Mary would have followed what the authors of the Mishna describe as the Shammaite interpretation of this law. As is often the case, we do not know which was the most prevalent interpretation of this law at this time or which was adopted by the Temple authorities. Luke deserves the benefit of the doubt.

I conclude that there is nothing historically implausible in this narrative. That does not prove that it is historical, but it does remove one objection, of which some scholars have made most, to the hypothesis that traditions from the family of Jesus form the core of Luke’s infancy narrative.


 For an account of scholarship on the infancy narratives since Brown, see Wansbrough in New Perspectives on the Nativity (2009)
 E.g. in my ‘Elizabeth and Mary’ (Gospel Women) I ignore issues of historicity. 
 Scholars who continue to find substantial historical value in the infancy narratives include Puig I Tarrrech (2010) …
 The recent broad agreement on this is due, to quite a large extent, to Burridge’s detailed argument in What Are the Gospels? For a recent survey of scholarship on Gospels genre, see Diehl (2011)
 Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses
 For a recent defence of this position, see Aune in Wedderburn FS.

 See Jesus and the Eyewitnesses …
 Burridge… On Plutarch, see Duff 2008.
 So the term ‘creative historiography’ (used by Lincoln 2013) is not really appropriate for such material in most of the biographies.
 See Talbert, ‘Prophecies,’ 135; McHugh 288-289. Stories from the Greek myths should not be included here. The Life of Apollonius by Philostratus seems to have been written deliberately to rival the Gospels.
 But Talbert, ‘Prophecies,’ stretches this category, in a way not helpful for comparison with Luke’s infancy narrative, by including predictions made at the outset of a character’s adult life or public career, long after birth.
 E.g. Cicero 2.
 E.g. Augustus … Tiberius (?)
 In the case of biographies of writers, about whom the biographers often had little real information, such matters could be deduced by means of highly ingenious readings of the subject’s writings. 
 For a strongly skeptical view of a popular rumour, see Livy on Scipio Africanus, quoted McHugh 289 n. 12.
 Other features found in the birth narratives of Scripture and Pseudo-Philo, but not in Greco-Roman biography, are the naming of the child by an angel before birth (Bible: Isaac; Ps-Philo: Samson, cf.. Samuel), and the birth of a child to a barren or elderly woman.
 Weizman, Song and Story
 Bogaert argues that Luke knew Pseudo-Philo’s work. (Note on the birth narratives in Ps-Philo…)
 For Luke’s infancy narrative as oral history, cf. Laurentin…    For the analogy between modern ‘oral history’ and ancient historiographical practice, see Byrskog

 Luke 2:19, 51.
 (List commentators)
 `For a good defence of this view, see Fitzmyer (essays)
 Acts 21:18.

 Bauckham, Jude and the Relatives
 My view of the genealogy has recently been endorsed in a study of the tradition in Julius Africanus by Christophe Guignard (in Clivaz ed.)
 Good survey in Porter (2002 in Wedderburn FS). See now also Di Segni (2005), Puig I Tarrech (2010), Rhoads (2011), Dabrowa (2011), Di Segni (2013), Dabrowa (2013).
 This discussion is limited to 2:22-24 and so does not consider the figures of Simeon and Anna and their prophecies. For an argument that Anna is a historically credible figure, see Bauckham, ‘Anna of the Tribe of Asher’ (Gospel Women).
 Brown 448; Meier vol 1, 210
 Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 299; Evans 213; Marshall 117; Meier vol 1, 210; Brown 447. According to Easton 27, there was no obligation to go to Jerusalem, but ‘the use of the temple for this rite by those living near Jerusalem must have been common.’
 Fitzmyer 420-421. See Num 18:16; Lev 12:2-4.
 Evans 212: ‘Either [Joseph + Mary or Mary + Jesus] would be nonsensical and betray ignorance of Jewish custom… [The pronoun their] is most likely a clumsy device of Luke to bring the child into the proceedings.’ Cf. Brown 448; Fitzmyer 424
 Fitzmyer 424; Meier 210.
 For Luke’s use of chiastic patterns in the infancy narrative, see Bauckham, Gospel Women, 49-51
 Nolland 118; Carroll 75
 Marshall, 117, seems to think that Jesus, exceptionally, was not redeemed, but this is scarcely credible. There is no way he could be exempt from the law in the eyes of the Temple authorities.
 Fitzmyer 425. Cf. Bovon 99: ‘the redemption of the firstborn was not connected to the temple.’
 Statements of this sort take no account of the fact that elsewhere Luke shows considerable familiarity (not derived from the Old Testament) of Temple procedures: Luke 1:5-10; Acts 3:1-2. Acts 21:23-24, 26, is a disputed example.
 In Num 18:15 and often elsewhere, LXX uses προσφέρειν κυρἰῳ. Luke’s παραστσαι τ κυρἰῳ is a good equivalent, since παριστάναι can be used of offering in sacrifice (e.g. Rom 12:1).
 Lagrange 81, quotes Num 18:15, but comments: ‘Il n’était prescript nulle part clairement que l’enfact dût conduit au Temple.’ Maybe this misleading comment discouraged later commentators from taking the evidence of Num 18:15 seriously.
 Nolland 117, rightly refers to Neh 10:35-36 as evidence of the custom of presenting the child in the Temple, but not to the source of that passage in Num 18:15.
 Clines, ‘Nehemiah 10 …’
 The confidence of scholars such as Brown and Fitzmyer (who cite no evidence) that the redemption price could be paid to any priest anywhere is evidently based on Strack-Billerbeck (vol. 2, 120) who cite two identical passages in the Mekilta de R. Ishmael: ‘Just as in the case of the firstling born to man, one gives the child to the priest in any location that one chooses, so in the case of the firstling of a beast, one hands it over to the priest in any place that one chooses’ (16:1 = 76:3, translation from Neusner 96, 221). S-B give no context, but in the context this statement seems to relate to the situation when ‘one lives in a distant place,’ i.e. distant from ‘the chosen house’ (the Temple). Probably it represents a concession based on the analogy of the law in Deut 14:22-26 (note the reference to firstlings in v 23). It not an alternative to the rule that the firstborn should be presented in the Temple, but provides for exceptions to the rule. In any case, these passages (which refer to no named rabbis) are hardly good evidence for the practice of the late Second Temple period, though it is plausible that in that period people living far from the Temple were permitted to present their child to a priest locally.
 Most commentators think Luke has drawn the motif of the presentation of the child in the Temple from the story of Samuel in 1 Sam 1, but Samuel was two years old and stayed in the Temple as Eli’s assistant. A proper understanding of the law of the firstborn makes reference to Samuel redundant.
 Some scholars think the reference is to Mary and Jesus (e.g. Lagrange 82; Bovon 96, 99), but this is not probable.
 Plummer 63, observes: ‘Contact with an unclean person involved uncleanness.’ But this is too generalized a point to prove anything in this instance.
 m. Nid. 10:6: ‘The School of Shammai say: Even as one that suffered uncleanness from a corpse,’ i.e. she is a source of impurity. See the comment on this passage in Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, 757.

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