Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty
Reader Feedback and Author’s Response
Set 24: November 2004

As in the previous Reader Feedback (Set 23) I am once again prefacing the regular Queries and Responses on the Jesus question with an expanded section in which, along with the usual quoting of general remarks about the website, I discuss comments being made to me in regard to Religion and Rationality. Replies to queries concerning the historical Jesus question will continue to follow the usual format, and are listed by name and subject heading on the Index page, while the R & R comments will be without headings and not listed in the Index.

Because of this increase in concern over issues of religion and rationality, and the disturbing trends visible in North American society today (especially following the re-election of George W. Bush), I am revamping the Age Of Reason website to provide more up-to-date comment on such issues, and to reproduce articles and reports from other sites and publications on a wide range of topics. Please visit: AgeOfReason.htm (URL

Martin writes:

Your books, The Jesus Puzzle and Challenging the Verdict, contain the most compelling logical  arguments for any position I've ever encountered! They are, in my opinion, great jewels of probity and intellectual honesty.

Emil writes:

   Let me begin my telling you how much I enjoyed your book [The Jesus Puzzle]. It was an epiphany. I was brought up a catholic, attending catholic schools during my early education. However, as my training as a scientist proceeded, it became clear that there was a great difference between religious knowledge (blind) and scientific knowledge (logic based). So I came to lose my belief in Jesus as god but still thought christianity was based on a real person. But the thought that an insignificant peasant from a remote area of the Roman empire had such an impact, so quickly, on mankind was difficult to comprehend.
   Now all is clear. Your brilliant analysis of the evidence is compelling and overwhelming to anyone with an open mind. By the way, although the vast majority of the scientists I have known throughout my career were non-believers in religion (probably following my reasoning), there were a handful who managed to devote a part of their minds to blind belief. When I tried reasoning with one of them, his response was that logical thinking was a ruse of Satan. How can you argue with someone who believes that logical thinking is demonic?
E.D.:  Indoctrination, and the fear that is inculcated with it, are powerful forces, often enough to override the mind's ability to apply rational standards. At the same time, I sometimes wonder whether some minds have a greater propensity to be influenced by indoctrination and fear than do others, somewhat akin to having a gene for addiction in other areas. A study of this question would be most interesting. The growing number of those who are able to shake off their religious indoctrination, or never to adopt one later in life, is hopefully an indicator that our society is, shall we say, 'mutating' out of its traditional orientation toward belief in the supernatural, although when we look around us today it's easy to get discouraged at how far we still have to go.

Steven writes:

   I thought I would take this opportunity to thank you for your two fascinating books on the origins of Christianity. After I watched a rerun last year of the PBS documentary on the origins of Christianity I became interested in doing additional research. I read Crossan and Fredriksen's books. Clearly, Crossan is trying to construct a historical Jesus who could be a hero in the present day. Fredriksen, on the other hand, seemed much less anachronistic. Then I read Spong, who introduced me to a mythicist viewpoint, although in the end he felt compelled to dig a historical Jesus out of the mythical dust.
   Then I bought a copy of The Jesus Puzzle, and it blew my socks off. Your books quickly led me to conclude that even Fredriksen's scholarly work is outdated. Perhaps in academia there are financial incentives not to cross certain lines.

E.D.: It is not so much a question of financial incentives. Quite apart from any confessional interests that might be operating, someone who has worked in the field and made a career of studying and writing about an historical figure would find it extremely difficult to do an about-face of this magnitude, and the peer pressure to toe the basic party line would be considerable. Also, I believe that few mainstream scholars, even the most progressive ones, have allowed themselves to consider the possibility of non-existence for Jesus, and consequently have little depth of understanding of the mythicist position. Paula Fredriksen herself has demonstrated this, as my article responding to her comments on one of my site articles shows. (See ChallengingDoherty.htm)

J.D. writes:

   I'm a big fan of your work, and after finding your site a few months ago have been a regular reader. I was once a bible-belt fundamentalist Christian, but over the course of the last few years have become a staunch atheist. In my home town (though it is, thankfully, not my current place of residence) this causes quite a stir, especially when my family is involved. As a result of my decision, I've met much criticism--though that's a bit of an understatement.
   I've decided--in order to assist those that believe as I do, to counter those who question the rationality behind my decision, and to, perhaps, give Christians some food for thought (I'd even go so far to say I hope I can persuade a few people to my side of the fence)--to write a book on the subject.

E.D.:  Not only are more people abandoning their religious indoctrination, many of them feel a need to help others do the same, an encouraging development. Perhaps one reason for this is that the style of religious belief (especially Christian, within North American society) has moved much more toward the fundamentalist and evangelical expressions than in previous generations, when the older established churches had a more sedate, less aggressive, following and a style of belief that did less violence to modern scientific and social enlightenment. It was probably less damaging to the believer's intellect and his or her rational and psychological functioning, and it placed less impediments in the way of progress. Today, not only has the evangelical brand of faith come to place greater strains on personal integrity, it has become much more activist, seeking to impose its reactionary views on society as a whole, in the areas of education, human rights and much else. Consequently, those of us who recognize the perils involved feel motivated to try to do something about it. There is just too much at stake.

Mary writes:

   Thank you for your fantastic book [The Jesus Puzzle]. The extent of your scholarship is unbelievable. I've been a religious skeptic all my life but really only recently renewed my interest, discovered the mythical Christ and your amazing book to boot.
   You speak hopefully about the reinterpreted scriptures entering the public consciousness but there is no way the fundamentalists can be reasoned with. Evangelical churches are strong and growing. Even if the liberal churches can finally tear down the crumbling structures and prepare to rebuild on firmer foundations, I fear the mindset of fundamentalists is fixed. Thus the divide between reason and irrationality will widen.
   Your ideas create as much as they demolish. They are liberating and present incredible hope for the world. Just imagine if the Pope recanted! Could Islam be rattled being so derivative of both Judaism and Christianity (although not as tortured in its scriptural basis)?
   I've started on your website. How can you possibly answer all those e-mails? When do you sleep? I hope you're reaping some financial benefits from all of this. Ironically, it may be said, your immortality is assured. This, to my mind is the most significant book of the 21st century.

E.D.:  Mary's praise may be a bit hyperbolic, but enthusiasm is a common reaction when entrenched ideas that have sat ill with the world in so many ways, and for so long, are demonstrated to be unfounded and no longer tenable. A sense of freedom and exhilaration is a response I encounter regularly (and I am by no means the only one responsible for making that possible, as there are others working effectively in this field as well). Unfortunately, her comments on the fundamentalist mentality are pretty well on the mark, and it is important that we do not allow this segment of society to impose its primitive views on everyone, and certainly not by default due to a reluctance (or fear) by society's more rational segments to speak out. As for the Pope recanting, well, regardless of whatever personal doubts he might come to feel (though I'm quite sure he doesn't peruse the Jesus Puzzle website by night), the Vatican establishment behind him would never allow such doubts to be expressed.

Roz writes:

y Christian parents had opted out of their religions when I appeared on the scene. Consequently I skipped a Christian upbringing. I've lived in an agnostic fog for years, unable to swallow the literal biblical interpretations and unable to voice clearly why. [I was] led to your web page and am so relieved to find my intuition expressed so clearly. I can't wait to explore this topic more fully and I'm sure I will visit often. I will also be looking for your books.

Jesse writes:

   Thanks for making your website available. Prior to encountering your site I found biblical scholarship and criticism to be over my head. I could be swayed this way and that by experts who know more than me, experts with agendas. Your writing, especially your discussion of the silence of the New Testament (outside the Gospels) concerning the life, deeds and sayings of Jesus while he walked on this earth was truly a revelation to me. I was blind, but now I see. So obvious! Those statements that seemed to make oblique references to things like his crucifiction [sic] threw me off the trail.
   So many Jesus scholars say he was a mortal man first, and then later he became immortalized. It now appears that the Logos preceded the creation of the historical Jesus. The word became flesh and dwelt among us. This changed perspective is so much more useful than trying to follow the movements of a mystery man underestimated by his critics. Maybe the author of John was writing to an audience that would understand that these were fables with morals.
   Well, it will take time to sort this out. But the new perspective turns the whole world upside down.

E.D.:  A nice 'take' on the Gospel of John's author and his outlook. Would that the early evangelists could be seen simply as creators of allegorical fables for their communities' enlightenment, with no delusions of their own, even if they were responsible for the vast delusions that came after them. However, I don't think it's quite that easy.

Nellie writes:

   I see by the reviews that you have stepped on the toes of the deluded! Hmmmm!

Nikki writes:

   Just wanted to say, THANK-YOU for your site! It's amazing what happens when people stop and THINK for themselves! Your site is an eye-opener and also a light in a dark place. May Yahweh bless your work.

E.D.:  Hmmm....Obviously, Nikki is not giving us the whole picture.

Noel writes:

     I've recently discovered your website and have enjoyed it thoroughly. To find so much information on many of the questions that I have been struggling with for so many years is refreshing to say the least. I was brought up in a staunch Anglican home and was always told to never question God's word etc but somehow my natural curiosity was never satisfied. Since then I've drifted away from the Anglican church and have been to a few charasmatic churches to see whether or not I would fit in but unfortunately I've found that they are just as unwilling to answer difficult questions about inconsistencies in the bible and God in general. My wife suffers from the fear of God whenever any of these subjects are brought up at home and feels that we should be giving our young daughter a good Christian upbringing so as to prepare her for this cruel world, so you can imagine the lively debate that takes place when we do talk about such things.
     I was wondering if you could shed some light on the following information for me? I've recently been roped into doing the Alpha course (by Nicky Gumbel) with my wife, I agreed to go along in the hope that I could point out some glaring inconsistencies to my fellow attendees and get some real debate going. Now as far as I can see the whole course has to base itself on the fact that the Bible is the unerring word of God in order for the rest of the reading material to be considered true and that it hasn't been altered in all these years. The first bit of evidence they present is with regards to the fact that Jesus did exist and these sources include: Tacitus and Suetonius the roman historians as well as Josephus the jewish historian. The next thing they say is that the Bible must be true because there are so many references which can be traced to the Bible from the following works Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, Ceasars Gallic war, Livy's Roman history and of course the New Testament itself. Now not being a historian myself they could say what ever they wanted and I wouldn't be able to prove a thing. I was wondering if you had an opinion on the above.

E.D.:  If you have read my site, you will know that Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius are very unreliable as a witness to an actual historical Jesus. Josephus' main reference is a Christian insertion as it stands, and no reliable authentic residue can be extracted from it; similar reliability problems exist in regard to his second reference to Jesus. Suetonius' reference is so ambiguous that it may not be referring to a human figure at all (strife 'caused by Chrestus' could be anything from some man named Chrestus, a common name, to themythicalobject of worship of the group involved), and Tacitus's passage, if authentic (there are actually some reasons to doubt it), could simply be repeating Christian hearsay of the time which Tacitus picked up in Rome or in Asia Minor a few years earlier when he was administrator there. (Even the odd Christian scholar, such as Norman Perrin, thinks this is more than likely.)
     As for those other historians' "references that can be traced to the Bible", I would have to know what specifically this refers to. It was fashionable for Christian writers in the ancient world to claim that even Plato got his ideas from Moses by reading the Hebrew bible (in Hebrew, I guess, since the Greek Septuagint did not yet exist in Plato's time!) Herodotus was a Mediterranean traveller and reported on all sorts of traditions in the lands he visited, so it would not be surprising if he mentioned some Hebrew ones (I don't offhand recall). But Thucydides? Though it's been many years since I read him, I don't remember anything like that, and I don't see what any of this would prove, especially about the bible being "true".
Perhaps they also mention the Roman poet Virgil, who in his Eclogue IV, 4, makes a kind of "messianic" prophecy reflecting a supposed tradition about a coming golden age, a "new generation is descending from heaven". Bible enthusiasts have often seized on this as reflecting an 'instinct' about the coming of Christ even in the pagan mind. But not only is this a political statement by Virgil relating to Caesar Augustus, the first emperor, who had recently come to power and seemed to promise such things for the Roman state and the world as a whole, it reflects a common type of theme throughout the ancient world about a coming great king, etc. who will bring about a new era, etc. The Jewish messianic tradition was partly a reflection of that general tendency.
I only wish that your wife (and others like her) could realize that "fear" is religion's greatest tool to its own survival, and that as part of the process of indoctrination which religions almost universally entail, the fear of doubt, of questioning, of loosening the dogma, is what keeps most believers in obedience and willing to repress their own rational faculties. It is encouraged and perpetuated by religion's directors (from priests to popes) to maintain their own positions, since if we are not allowed to question for ourselves, we tend to go to them for guidance and assurance that all problems are explainable and that we need not worry, or indeed even think about such things. There is no greater power we can exercise over others than the power over the mind. The doctrine of Hell has been particularly useful in that regard for centuries. I recall a harrowing sermon on hell by a white-robed Franciscan monk at our church when I was ten years old, but more than the horrific descriptions he gave (all of them insults to any idea of a loving and merciful God), there sticks in my memory the faces of my father beside me and other men around me: looks of rapt fear and submission, and I realized several years later when I became a non-believer what power these priests wielded over us (power we have given them for no other reason than indoctrination), and what fear could do to imprison our minds. One of the things that struck me about the whole thing was how offensive it is that our minds have been so assaulted and crippled by such men and ideas, often for life. It is unfortunate that so many people simply cannot find the means or ability to break those bonds. To give your child the Christian upbringing your wife advocates would condemn her to a life of fear and repression. Ironically, much of the "cruelty" of the world she wants to guard against relates to what religion itself does to us, or to others that we have to coexist with, whether in our own neighborhoods or on this planet as a whole.

Jeff writes:

    It can only be said that greater minds than yours have tried to destroy God's Word for over 2,000 years and it stands true today in spite of their and your best efforts. I grieve for your soul.

E.D.: What we need more of is "grieving for the mind".

Clay writes:

    I want to let you know that I am really enjoying reading your work. I am also very interested in the notion of putting together information that explores the true history of biblical religious thought over the eons. There is so much misinformation about Christianity pushed onto the general public, and virtually nothing that tells the story of its origins. I assume you are in contact with other critical explorers of the religious texts. Do you think it is possible there might be interest in trying to put together a television documentary about this?

E.D.:  I have no doubt there exists a lot of interest in doing such a thing. Unfortunately, two general impediments tend to stand in the way: the difficulty of raising money for such a production, and the unwillingness of major networks to air radical material that would offend their vast religious viewership. If you watch any of the standard documentaries aired by PBS or A&E on biblical studies, you will recognize how carefully they tread when allowing a voice even to the idea of doubt on the part of liberal scholarship about orthodox viewpoints. On the other hand, fraudulent specials about things like the discovery of Noah's Ark are regularly and shamelessly offered to a gullible public.

Willem writes:

     I agree with everything you say. But you offer no hope that our existence has a meaning. Against our better judgement we believe anything as long as it gives us a glimmer of hope. We don't want the truth, we want hope. Besides that, religion sometimes convinces us to do the right thing. Hitler was a man without religion and that led to terrible things.

E.D.: There is a wealth of potential for comment on this brief message, but I will keep it short. Of course, Willem has neatly summed up the reason why religion is so successful, and at the same time why it is so deleterious. It boils down to wishful thinking, and whether one chooses to live one's life according to fantasy or reality. If a belief in a supernatural divinity and a personal afterlife is a misguided fantasy, then the consequences of how we regard the present world can only be negative. The theist would like to claim otherwise, but history and even our present-day experience, proves the claim wrong. If religion "sometimes" convinces us to do the right thing, it has more often led us to do the wrong thing. How we have arrived at that distinction is by the exercise of our own intellects and moral wisdom. If we possess these latter faculties, we don't need divine directives to guide us, especially ones that are encased in petrified writings that are often primitive, contradictory, and counterproductive to social and intellectual progress.
     As for the timeworn accusations about Hitler (with Stalin usually included as well, as dual examples of the consequences of 20th century 'atheism'), it is by no means agreed that Hitler was an atheist, or that atheism was the cause of his or Stalin's reprehensible deeds. Communism and fascism were political ideologies, and their crimes were committed in the name of political and nationalist ideals, not in the name of atheism. Since history and present-day experience more than amply demonstrate that even religion is no impediment to criminal inhumanity, the standard argument using the likes of Hitler and Stalin is hardly compelling. Moreover, the crimes committed by religions (and Christianity's history is full of them) are done in the name of religion, which is an important distinction usually overlooked.
     But now on to more technical matters....

Doug writes:

   Thank you for your great site and your fascinating books! I've always had a question concerning the New Testament usage of "Lord" (Greek "Kurios") and if the appellation for Jesus as Lord was meant by the writers to refer to the same Kurios/Yahweh in the Septuagint, meaning they thought Jesus was God? Am I right that the Septuagint refers to Jewish kings like David and Solomon as "kurios?" as well, and that it doesn't exclusively mean God?
   What would be the connection between James 5:4, referring to the "Lord of Sabaoth" and then following it James 5:7, "The coming of the Lord" which apparently (???) refers now to Jesus. Does this mean that whoever wrote this epistle believed that they were one and the same "Lord"?

Response to Doug:

Does Jesus as "Lord" mean he is "God"? / James' "Lord"

Questions like these go to the heart of the mythicist case. First of all, we often find in some of the earliest Christian documents, such as the epistle of James, that a confusion is created (in our minds, not necessarily in theirs) as to who is being referred to by terms like "Lord". When the term is applied to both figures, Father and Son, there is a kind of melding of their identities, and many early writers seem never to present Jesus as a strong, independent figure, clearly distinct from God. Often God and Jesus are spoken of in the same breath, like two sides of a single coin (e.g., Jude 4). Both are viewed as divine, heavenly beings. Things are done by God through Jesus, rather than spoken of as done directly by Jesus himself. Frequently it is God who saves; he is the one who bears the title "Savior," a title we would automatically think of as reserved for Jesus. (Scholars call this a "fluid application"!) In discussing certain passages in the epistles, they regularly disagree over who is meant by a given reference. Is it Jesus or God? The functions of Father and Son do not seem to be clearly separated yet. There even seem to be passages where God is said to have suffered; this idea proved a source of horror to later 2nd century Christians and was declared heretical.

Hans-Joachim Schoeps (The Theology of the Apostle Paul) has pointed out that Paul, in using the title "kurios" applies it to Jesus in exactly the way he would to God, as the Old Testament uses it of God in the Greek Septuagint. Schoeps concludes, with a touch of well-merited astonishment, that Paul thus brings Jesus "at the very least into close proximity with God." James Dunn (The Parting of the Ways, p.188f), in discussing the same point, expresses the same reaction even more strongly. He notes that Paul shows not the slightest discomfort in applying to Jesus passages from the Hebrew scriptures which originally referred to God, such as Joel 2:32: "Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved." This Paul quotes in Romans 10:13 with direct application to Jesus. The hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 is a clear echo, Dunn says, of Isaiah 45:23 which is "one of the strongest assertions of Jewish monotheism in the whole of the scriptures." He goes on to declare: "That a Jew should use such a text of a man who recently lived in Palestine is truly astonishing."

But it would be astonishing only if this is what Paul is doing. The fact that Paul never gives us any indication that he is equating his divine Lord and Son of God with "a man who had recently lived in Palestine" seems to have escaped scholars like Dunn. There is no indication in any of the first century epistles that the early Christian preaching movement has elevated a crucified criminal of recent memory to the status of Godhood, full identification with the ancient God of Abraham. This would have been the ultimate outrageous blasphemy. (Paul's comment in 1 Corinthians 1:23 that the cross of Christ is a "scandal" refers to the idea that his
divineChrist was crucified, not that a man had been turned into God, a point which is never addressed anywhere.)

A scholar like F. F. Bruce can face the unthinkable seemingly without blinking: "What moved them to do so [apply "Lord" in its fullest sense to Jesus] was the impact which Jesus himself made on their lives
an impact so unparalleled that it made men who had been brought up as faithful monotheistic Jews give Jesus, inevitably and spontaneously, the glory which belonged to the one God." (Promise and Fulfilment, p.49f)

Yet Bruce has shown the inadequacy of the only rationalization available for it. No impact which a human Jesus could have made on their lives would be sufficient reason to overcome the Jewish monotheistic mindset, would ever have led to their declaration of him as God and Lord, pre-existent, agent of creation, atoner and redeemer, conqueror of the supernatural powers, ruler and sustainer of the universe. No man could produce such a reaction (nor ever has). Nothing in Jewish philosophical tradition could have prepared them for it. Even Philo has severely restricted his picture of Moses as a vehicle for the Logos and has made Moses in no way divine. Indeed, to deify a recent man to such a cosmic level as Jesus was supposed to have been immediately raised was without precedent anywhere, in Jewish or pagan religious philosophy. (This cosmic elevation in the early record belies the common scholarly claim that Jesus of Nazareth was only gradually deified, culminating in the Church Councils: it turns a blind eye, or deliberately tries to obscure, the picture of Jesus presented in virtually all the earliest documents.)

It might be said (and I've been among those who have said it) that Pauline Christianity was as much a gentile-inspired movement as a Jewish one, and thus would be less resistant to the elevation of a man to divine status. Yet this potentially more fertile ground of acceptance is entirely ignored in the picture created by the early epistles addressed to diaspora and largely gentile audiences, in that the role of Jesus as a recent human figure is simply not introduced, even where it would have been advantageous. And while early Christianity had a strong gentile element, it was still wedded to the Jewish heritage, if only by adoption; even the Gospels show that many early Christian communities had ties to the synagogue. Scholars have identified the split that occurred in the latter milieu as "the parting of the ways," something that began to take place toward the end of the first century, after which Christian sects could no longer be closely associated with the synagogue and were expelled. What led to this split? Why did Jews and gentiles apparently co-exist in the new movement for several decades in many parts of the Christian world, and then have a fatal and permanent falling out? The mythicist scenario has a simple answer: it happened when the spiritual Christ began to evolve into a Jesus who was seen as an actual man. Once Jesus of Nazareth emerged, the Jewish Christians could not go along, and further conversion of Jews to Christianity came to a halt. (Certain Jewish-Christian expressions survived for some time, but only by refusing to recognize the new Jesus figure as divine, which is a characteristic of so-called Jewish-Christian sects which continued into the third century.)

Out of this rejection of the new Jesus by the Jews came the anti-semitic trend in Christian tradition, an expression of the gentile mind which failed to comprehend the impossibility of general Jewish acceptance of their Jesus of Nazareth as Son of God. Pre-Gospel Christian thought, it is true, had been flirting with a compromise to strict monotheism (dangerously, as it turned out) in its introduction of a distinct 'Son' entity, especially one that had been sacrificed, but the hostility of the Jewish establishment toward the new sect and the persecution it suffered was mild in those first few decades. Traditions about such early persecution, about Paul's personal activities against the new movement prior to his conversion, have been to a great extent discredited as later exaggeration
even on the part of Paul himself. (See, for example, Douglas Hare, Jewish Persecution of Christians in Matthew.) The reason for this mild response in the early period, and why Christians in many areas could be a part of the synagogue, was because the new sect had not stepped over such an outrageous barrier. No human figure, recent or otherwise, had yet been introduced.

The kind of blasphemous elevation Jesus is claimed to have undergone immediately after his death would have resulted in the most severe persecution imaginable. If Jesus himself had gone around Galilee or Judea even hinting at the kind of doctrine about himself contained in the Gospels, especially John, he would likely have been 'lynched' on sight, without benefit of trial. And certainly no Jews, simple or otherwise, would have listened long enough to give themselves a chance to believe it. If he did not, it is incredible that anyone after his death would on their own have come up with such sacrilegious ideas concerning a crucified preacher, and even less likely that if they did, their fellow Jews would not immediately have lynched them.

The other fallacy involved in Bruce's comment is his explanation that it was "the impact which Jesus made on their lives" which prompted this blasphemous elevation of him. Some impact. A dozen Christian writers for three generations could completely ignore every aspect of his life and ministry as of no interest to them. His new teachings made such an impact that Christians could supposedly refer to them right and left without giving him the slightest attribution. His miracles made such an impact that not a whisper of them emerges for almost a hundred years. Such an impact did the life and deeds of this humble Jewish preacher make that he was immediately turned into a cosmic figure which bore no resemblance to the way the Gospels portray the man as presenting himself. He was immediately smothered to the point of total eclipse by a monumental theological construct which borrowed from every philosophical idea of the day. And all of it without a hint of defence or justification, without a glance back to the man himself.

The free distribution of divine titles, the blurring of roles and personality between Jesus and God which even scholars remark on, is understandable once one accepts that Jesus is not a distinct historical person whom people had experienced and remembered, but a theoretical spiritual entity, something one has derived from scripture under the influence of ideas current in religious philosophy. He is an emanation of God, an intermediary force, part of the workings of Divinity, all of it located in the supernatural realm. This manifestation of God is in the process of being defined, being clarified in the minds of writers like Paul. Once we get to the era of the Gospels, which, with the help of the Q-community traditions, have turned this vague intermediary Christ-force into an historical man, Christian writers have an earthly flesh and blood Jesus before their eyes, and they no longer have a problem in referring to him in a very distinct manner.

Doug's query about the two contiguous uses of the term "Lord" in James 5 is a good illustration of the confusion present in the minds of interpreters. In fact, both usages would seem to refer to God the Father, the first one certainly so, the second almost as certainly, as the context (looking back to 5:4) suggests a continuity of thought about who the writer is talking about. (This expectation of the arrival of God himself at the end-time, rather than of Jesus, is found in various early Christian documents, such as 1 John and the Didache, and indicates that the idea of a Parousia of Christ was by no means universal within the movement.) The sole clear instance of a mention of Christ in James is 2:1, and it is a passing one: "My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism..." Not only is this a good example of the free use of a divine title for Christ, with no self-consciousness, indicating that he is part of a shared divinity with God, he is presented simply as an entity one believes in, with no hint of an earthly life and death. The epistle of James is a notorious example of an early Christian writing that offers all sorts of moral advice resembling that of Jesus in the Gospels without ever attributing it to him. As well, there seems to be no thought of a redeeming death and resurrection, for in 1:21 the writer urges the reader to "accept the message implanted (in you) which can bring you salvation." It is the acceptance of an ethical teaching which "saves your souls," not Jesus' atoning sacrifice or rising from the grave.

The word "Lord", of course, was also used in more mundane settings, applied deferentially to important figures, including David, as Doug suggests. But the context in which early writings like James applies the term to Jesus clearly excludes placing him in this reduced category.

R.C. writes:

    You propose an interesting interpretation of the Jesus phenomenon of the first century. I think there is a lot of merit to it. I know that some propose that the gospel-esque Last Supper passage in 1 Corinthians 11 is a later interpolation, possibly by historicizers or possibly by people who pictured the scene as occurring in the world of myth rather than history. But if it's myth (whether originally a part of the epistle or not), I am curious who or what you think Jesus in this story was "handed over" to. Were demons walking around in this mythical world that Jesus could be handed over to? Were they "heavenly spherical" Romans or Jews (their counterparts in this world of myth)?
    In this passage Jesus is eating bread and drinking wine, he has disciples and there is day and night. I find it difficult to reconcile this with a Jesus who is entirely a spirit figure living in the heavenly spheres where there would be no wine, no disciples or day or night. A second question I have is that if it is myth, then is it taking place in the upper heavenly spheres or is it taking place on earth in some sort of distant, idealized past when the "gods walked the earth" and so forth.

Response to R.C.:

Envisioning the Mythical World of the Savior Gods

Envisioning the workings of the upper spiritual world of myth seems to present a stumbling-block for many people who might otherwise embrace the mythicist case more readily. Part of the reason is that they tend to take things too literally, in a graphic detail that often strikes the 21st century mind as ludicrous. If the Son in relation to "the flesh" was of the seed of David (as Paul states in Romans 1:3), they imply that one must therefore envision a "heavenly David" walking around in some upper kingdom, copulating on a heavenly bear-skin blanket with a heavenly wife, who in turn gives birth to a heavenly tiny perfect Son, no doubt breast-feeding and raising him through the rigors of spirit-realm childhood. Now, mythology in the ancient world could be pretty graphic, and every ancient religion had detailed myths about the activities of their gods and goddesses. But how literally were they perceived? The philosophers (like Plutarch) tell us that we should not view such things literally, but only as allegories for deeper truths. When the savior-god Attis, consort of the Great Mother, had a myth of self-castration attached to him by those who sought an explanation for the practice of castration by devotees of the goddess, it served the purpose of elucidating features of faith and practice among the initiates. But should we think that such a graphic myth could only be taken literally, or that it ought to have presented a stumbling-block to members of the Attis cult?

Well, we can assume that it didn't, and while a few philosophers (such as Sallustius in the 4th century) declared it was all symbolic, it's hard to know how literally some of the initiates-in-the-street may have taken such myths. But it really doesn't matter. We know that such myths existed and were an essential part of the various savior-god religions. We make the mistake of bringing our modern sensibilities to the very similar Christian myths and pronouncing them ridiculous as anything but supposed historical fact. But if we have the example of the religious myths of the time before us, and if we can accept that they were not placed in specific history yet were given meaning in one way or another, we have no reason to reject those of early Christianity as being impossible to accept on the same level, regardless of questions of literalism.

Observers like R.C. suggest that the mystery cult myths could be placed in the "idealized past" on earth, often called a "primordial time" in or before history, implying that this is more acceptable and constitutes a key distinction from the upper-world picture in which mythicists like myself want to cast a scene such as the Lord's Supper of 1 Corinthians 11:23. But this is really a false distinction. In mythology more ancient than the period of Christianity, primordial time was the usual setting in which these stories were set, yet it was a time and place 'outside' of normal history. Platonism merely transferred that external setting to the upper part of a dualistic universe, retaining much of the same character for the myths involved. The two types of thinking are simply reflective of the current philosophies, and as I have shown in some detail in Appendix 6 of my book, The Jesus Puzzle, the evidence in both Christian and non-Christian myth of the period around the first century clearly suggests that the standard placement was in a parallel upper spirit world rather than in a distant-past primordial time.

Thus R.C. is trying to be unnecessarily specific in asking whether Jesus was "handed over" to heavenly Romans or Jews (whether spherically shaped or otherwise). In fact, Paul in Romans 8:32, says that God himself was the one who "delivered up" Jesus for sacrifice, using the same verb found in 1 Corinthians 11:23. To whom was God doing the handing over, where was he standing at the time? Obviously, literalism is not the issue here. Similarly, in Paul's Lord's Supper passage, we do not have to postulate a detailed dinner table scene in which we could count the spiritual cups, no more than we need to similarly detail the scene of Mithras dining with the Sun god and signing a pact with him, such as we find in the sacred meal mythology of the Mithraic cult, or ask what the alloy was of the heavenly knife used by Attis to castrate himself. Did the average ancient mind even make a distinction between the nature of material reality and of spiritual reality? All it knew was that they were two related branches of reality, the spiritual more 'real' and primary than the material; and in the case of early Christ cultists like Paul, that the Jewish scriptures presented a revelatory window onto that higher reality, where the spiritual processes of salvation had taken place under God's guidance. Any question about 'literalism' could only have struck him as confused or misguided.

Mario writes:    

     I must commend you on your thoroughly well researched and lucid web page. Something struck me about those who say that the reason that Paul and other 1st century Christian writers fail to mention an earthly Jesus and his teachings is because it was common knowledge among his followers and therefore need not be referenced.
     What about the Old Testament references these early authors use in their discourses? Would not their intended recipients be aware and knowledgeable of these much older scriptures as well? Would it be necessary for Paul et al. to use OT scriptural passages to make their point if their correspondents already knew them? The OT passages had been around a lot longer than anything an earthly Jesus might have said during his life in 1st century Galilee, so their dissemination would be expected to be much more established. We are to believe that the much newer words of Jesus are already a 'given' during the 1st century and therefore need no referencing, but the longer established OT still needs to be referenced.
     I am drawn to agree with your conclusion that the 'exclusion' of the teachings of Jesus by Paul et al. are baffling if they indeed were aware of them. The excuse that they need not refer to them because their intended recipients already knew the material seems absolutely groundless to me.

Response to Mario:

Paul's Silence on the Words of Jesus

As it does to me, making this standard 'explanation' by someone like J. P. Holding an incredibly weak argument. First of all, Paul is writing within the first generation or so of the spread of Christianity, and his audiences are all over the map, literally. To think that scores of centers and congregations across the eastern Roman empire would already have been so fully exposed to all the teachings of Jesus, and knew them so thoroughly, that it was accepted (by many more writers and apostles in the field than just Paul) that no further mention or attribution need be made of them, is simply ludicrous.

Second, the very idea is belied by much of the content of epistles like those of Paul. They are full of disputes that are directly related to issues which the supposed teachings of Jesus had addressed, such as the continued applicability of the Jewish Law, the need for things like circumcision and dietary restrictions, the coming Parousia of the Son of Man (or God, or Christ himself, it varied), and so on. It is clear that those teachings could not have been widely known or accepted, otherwise the disputes would not have arisen or would have been settled by appeal to those teachings. The great contention in Corinth Paul addresses in the early part of 1 Corinthians was supposedly based on different interpretations of Jesus' teachings (so scholars like Helmut Koester claim), and yet neither Paul nor apparently his rivals in that city ever refer to a single one of those teachings (a silence Koester is led to voice surprise at).

Finally, whether such teachings were widely known or not, this should not prevent writers and disputants from mentioning them, as Christian preachers and commentators do today, and have done for centuries. Indeed, the very familiarity with such teachings as envisioned by apologists like Holding would guarantee that they would be on everyone's lips. It is human nature, when debating an issue or urging a course of action on someone, to appeal to an authority who agrees with you, and that appeal is strengthened by the knowledge that the listener is very aware of such authority. If the listener holds a different interpretation of the authority's words, all the more reason to argue it with him.

The widespread use of Old Testament references in the writings of the early Christian authors not only demonstrates this practice, but shows the ingrained need and instinct for appeal and support when a writer is addressing contentious issues. It is simply astounding the extent to which generations of New Testament scholars have indulged in the most far-fetched and fallacious reasoning to explain the pervasive silence on any appeal to Jesus' teachings and deeds in the non-Gospel documents of the first century of the Christian movement.

Pat writes:

   Thanks for your site. It's helpful to me as a believing follower of Jesus the Christ.
   In reading your Top 20 about the silence in the epistles, I was struck by the fact that Paul has a curious silence also about the misunderstanding that people of that time had about Jesus actually being a real living breathing person. Obviously people at that time thought that Jesus was a real person who did the things that mainstream Christianity believes today. Even non-christian sources mention certain reported facts about early believers and followers of a person named Jesus (Josephus, etc.). If this is true then why didn't Paul go out of his way to correct this misunderstanding. How do you explain his SILENCE about an interpretation that Jesus literally lived, died, resurrected, and that people claimed to see, touch and eat with him?

Response to Pat:

Paul's "Silence" on an Historical Jesus Delusion / "Falsifying" the Gospel Story

Pat has apparently been unable to cut through the fog of preconception to grasp the fundamentals of the mythicist position. It is anything but "obvious" that any people of his time held the "misunderstanding" that Jesus had been a real person. Had they done so, and had Paul held a contrary view as representing an opposite opinion within the Christian movement, Pat is certainly right that the question would likely have been raised in his letters. Ironically, that is precisely the situation we find at a later date, a couple of generations after Paul's passing. Both in 1 John (in chapter 4), and the letters of Ignatius (which, whether genuine or not would have been a product of the early 2nd century), we seem to find a fundamental dispute going on within their communities about whether in fact Jesus had "come in the flesh" or had "truly" been born of Mary and crucified by Pilate.

Pat's question (though from a facetious angle) is simply a variant on the common objection that belief in an historical Jesus when it first arose, supposedly toward the end of the 1st century when the first Gospel(s) began to be disseminated, would have given rise to denials on the part of Jews, pagans, or even of Christians who would have known better, who would have objected that no such figure or events had been true. This, too, is short-sighted. Few such people would still be around in centers distant from Palestine who could have so objected, and the documents mentioned above show that when they were and did, they went unheeded. Those caught up in the fervor of a new idea rarely respond to criticism or correction. Indeed, as Ignatius shows, their reaction is to condemn the objector and hold to their own position with increasing tenacity and attempts to justify it. Those living nearer in time to the alleged events would have had no reason to object, since such a view about an historical figure was not being put forward (which is why Paul, in Pat's scenario, never raised such a question).

"Thomas" was another who recently protested along these lines. He says: "If your timeline is correct and the author of the Gospel of Mark is writing in 85-90 CE then this is only 49-64 years after the fictional crucifixion. This is a short enough time that many people would be alive who could falsify the story." I can't help thinking that this objection is somewhat determined by the era we live in. How would those half a century after the falsely-alleged fact of Jesus' crucifixion have conducted this falsification? By radio, television, the internet? Would they have published debunking books available in every bookstore? Would those who heard their objections have visited libraries and other available public records to verify that the denials were accurate? Would lawsuits be launched against those claimed to be deceiving the public through falsely advertising certain advantages or products in relation to the new doctrines? Would politicians or those in authority get worked up about allegedly false history contained in some document resting in a house-church somewhere in their district, if it was even brought to their attention?

The point is, when one thinks about such objections more than superficially, one realizes that in the context of the actual situation, especially in conditions like those of the first century, the alleged problem simply evaporates. We know enough about the spread of religious ideas, even within our own time, to know that the prospect of opposition, denial or contrary evidence has little effect on the birth and growth of doctrines which are, to begin with, delusions of the mind and the product of irrational thinking.

Raymond writes:

     Your approach to the problem of the existence of Jesus seems very similar to that of G. A. Wells. Wells arranges early Christian texts in chronological order and demonstrates that early Christian writers know next to nothing of Jesus' life and teachings, while later Christian writers know more and more. There is, of course, a great deal more than that in your writings, but the chronological approach seems central, and its implications are most devastating to believers.
     Alas, a fly has landed on that pudding. Is Paul the first Christian writer? Did Paul even exist, and if he did, what did he write? What if the epistles of Paul are not products of the middle of the first century but the works of later Christians (or even Gnostics) such as Marcion, and date towards the middle of the second century? How would that affect the development of your point of view? If the date of the Pauline epistles must be moved that far forward, even later than the date of at least one Gospel, Mark, then your and Wells' development seems to be thrown into confusion: now Mark seems to know a lot more than "Paul." I think that eliminating the Pauline epistles must have some effect on your view of early Christianity and the question of the existence of Jesus.

Response to Raymond:

The Mythicist Case if "Paul" is Second Century

The main "effect" of an inauthentic and second century Paul would be the amount of material to work with in recognizing and presenting the mythicist case. Much of what I am able to conclude is dependent on making use of certain portions of the Pauline corpus as authentic to the first century. But that is no different from asking how such a case could be made if we happened to have no writings of "Paul" at all. The answer is simply that it would be much more difficult.

However, a second-century Pauline corpus would not per se be fatal to the mythicist case, not even given its dating of a generation or more after the first Gospel. The documentary evidence hardly shows a "lock-step" progression of presumed knowledge about an historical Jesus even through most of the second century. As my site and books have demonstrated, certain writings of early Christianity make no mention of an historical figure well after my own rather conservative dating (as radical scholarship goes) of the Gospels. A Mark at around 85-90 and a Matthew and Luke (and even John) by around 125 still precede several 2nd century apologists, such as Athenagoras, Tatian and Theophilus, who present no historical Jesus in their defences of the faith. The record of these and other writings (Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas) shows that even after the Gospels were presumably written, widespread areas of the Christian faith were simply not familiar with them or possessed no copies.

Keep in mind, as well, that the Gospels could have been in existence for decades without being known much beyond the confines of the communities which produced them. And that, in fact, is the situation we seem to find in the documentary record as a whole. Even within those communities, there is nothing to tell us that such accounts were regarded as historical when first produced.

It is not so much that one can draw up a precise chronology of Christian documents and find a steady, coordinated progression of reference to the presumed Gospel figure and events as one moves forward in time. But the overall pattern is clearly there. "Knowledge" about Jesus of Nazareth and his life as supposedly recorded in the Gospels moves from the non-existent, to the spotty to the widespread over the course of 150 years. Only in the last two decades of the second century are we on secure ground in finding a picture of Christianity as a movement founded on the contents of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.

That being said, I regard the silence in the Pauline epistles in regard to an historical Jesus as being a strong argument against a dating in the mid-second century. Some have argued that even as late as that, the epistles could have been produced in circles that were lagging behind in knowledge of the newly developing traditions about an historical figure, and yet the second-century scenario does not fit such a claim. If they were the product of the Roman church, as many suggest, this is the very milieu which was one of the vanguards in promoting the Gospel story and its central character. Marcion, too, a favorite candidate for authorship of the Pauline corpus, eventually worked in Rome and even if he had composed the epistles in his earlier travels (one suggestion), he would almost certainly have revised them once he was operating in the Roman milieu and came to accept an historical Jesus, even if one rendered docetic. Besides, the mild gnostic features one can claim to find in Paul are nowhere near as developed or as specific as those Marcion seems to have promoted. The great gnostic-orthodox rivalry at the center of the empire which was a feature of the mid-second century is simply not present in Paul or even pseudo-Paul. Unless much stronger cases are made for the entire Pauline literature as second century products (not simply containing some later editingthough even this would be perplexing limited), I am convinced that the mythicist case is not in danger of being jeopardized through removal of most of the Pauline content from the first-century body of available evidence. The precise time and circumstances of that evidence (or even the question of their possible editing during the early period) is different matter, if one rejects Acts as providing any reliable picture of early Christianity in general or Paul's career in particular.

Eric writes:

    I first want to commend you on all the work you've put into your site. Now my question: It's been suggested to me that the wedding of John 2 [the miracle at Cana] was, in fact, Jesus' own wedding (though obviously the account obscures the fact), in keeping with the Jewish mishna that a teacher cannot be unmarried. Charles Davis has written that had Jesus been openly celibate, there would have been some mention of this by the Jewish community in the gospels. How might one read the water-into-wine story of John 2 in the absence of an historical Jesus?

Response to Eric:

The Wedding and Miracle at Cana in John    

Virtually all the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Gospels represent wondrous deeds which were either standard among miracle-workers and would-be messiahs of the day (healings, feats over nature, etc.) or were expressions of the expectations associated with the Jewish apocalyptic movement concerning the imminent End-time. What John's story may specifically have been modeled on, or what earlier version it may have been derived from and whether it was originally associated with Jesus, is impossible to say. Robert Price, quoting Raymond E. Brown, suggests (The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, p.77-8) that it was adapted from a "stray bit of infancy gospel material," since it reflects the idea that Jesus is drawn into showing his powers before the time for his public ministry has arrived. "My hour is not yet come" (John 2:4).

In this respect it is like the Lukan scene of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple, impressing the elders with his depth of knowledge and interpretation. Of course, scenes like this are sheer invention, as they reproduce a pattern found throughout ancient 'biography' of great men, "Wunderkind stories" as Price calls them. Philo and Josephus offered similar tales of Moses surpassing his elders, and they are told of other Old Testament figures like Samuel, Solomon and Daniel (more often than not, at the stated age of twelve). Miracle-working by a young prodigy before his embarkation on greatness was also a common theme, reflecting the idea that such greatness was foreshadowed while still in youth. The Brown/Price opinion suggests that the author (or more likely an editor at a later stage) of the Gospel of John adapted it from a more youth-oriented tradition, perhaps from among the growing catalogue of infancy material about the new historical Jesus that, along with all sorts of other apocryphal "acts" attached to early figures, was tumbling out of the legend mill in the latter half of the second century.

As for the suggestion that this was an obscured account of Jesus' own wedding, one wonders why only one evangelist would have included mention of it, even if disguised, and what purpose it might have been thought to serve in Cana context. As far as I know, the idea surfaces nowhere else, and if this Jewish concern for married teachers had really been applied to an historical figure, it says something about that historicity that no such issue surrounding him is found throughout the early documentary record.

Bryan writes:

    This is something I've been blindsided with a couple of times. I've had a pastor throw in my face about the current A.D. and B.C. system of measuring years and how that only exists because of Jesus! I was wondering as to who/what made us refer to years as A.D. and B.C. My guess is that the initials are of Roman origin and that they meant something else originally, later getting skewed by apologists into its current After Death / Before Christ.

Response to Bryan:

 Inventing A.D. and B.C.

I'm not sure if Bryan simply made a mental typo about the meaning of A.D., but of course it refers to the phrase "Anno Domini" or "in the Year of the Lord," meaning the number of years after his supposed birth. The system itself was only introduced early in the 6th century. Prior to that, official dating in the Roman empire had been reckoned from the year of Diocletian's accession in 284 CE, although the traditional system of "Ab Urbe Condite" dating (from the legendary foundation of Rome) remained in popular use. A Scythian monk by the name of Dionysius Exiguus living in Rome was appointed by the Pope to institute a more accurate dating system for Easter. As part of that reorganization, he calculated the birth of Christ as occuring in the year 753 of the traditional Roman calendar, a calculation which even those who accept the existence of such a figure now regard as wrong. Of course, Exiguus had nothing more to go on than we have today, which is to say, the imperfect accounts found in the Gospels, mainly Luke. The author of that Gospel lived much closer to the 'event' than Exiguus, but he clearly had no firm tradition about the time or circumstances of Jesus' presumed birth, and the nativity stories of both Matthew and Luke show signs of being constructed not as an attempted historically accurate record but, as always, with midrashic storytelling purposes paramount. The fact that no Christian tradition outside the artificial nativity stories of two Gospel writers preserved any more accurate or specific location of Jesus' birth is a telling silence against actual historicity.

Dick writes:

    I have a question relating to the 4 Gospels and their dates. Of the actual manuscripts that are in existence today, what are the dates when these copies were written?  Are there any from the time the canons were selected (367 CE)? I think I remember something about 1000 CE as being the oldest date for any of the Gospels.
     I also have a question concerning the three books by Barbara Thiering that I have read in recent years. I found them to be profound and thought-provoking, as well as scholarly in presentation. I'm curious as to how the Jesus theorists of today view her writings, especially the book on "The Book That Jesus Wrote" (of course, her theory is that Jesus did not die, and in fact went on to write, or dictate, the Book of John).

Response to Dick:

Extant New Testament Manuscripts / Barbara Thiering

Our oldest extant manuscripts of the Gospels, in whole and in part, much predate the year 1000. The great codeces containing most of the New Testament, such as Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, date from the 300s. Various incomplete texts come from the years between 200 and 300. A solitary fragment predates 200, namely the famous (or infamous) piece of John containing a few verses of chapter 18, which conservative scholars try to date as early as 125 or even 100, but which cannot be securely positioned any more specifically than the period 125 to 175. None of these (and the latter is too small to tell us much about the Gospel as a whole) fall within an early enough time frame to indicate either the nature of the earliest versions of the Gospels, or the nature of the early faith in general. The formative period of a new sect is precisely when most of the radical change and evolution of ideas takes place, and we have no manuscript record of that development as far as the Gospels are concerned. The fact that the extant writing we do have from that earliest period (epistles, non-canonical documents, etc.) presents a much different picture of the faith and the Jesus figure than the later Gospels indicates a likely evolution that was quantum in scope. Even within the context of the Gospels we see extensive changes between the earliest one written (Mark) and those who subsequently reworked him. All of this does not inspire confidence that the canonical record reflects the ideas or even the events of the initial period of Christianity. Incidentally, although the canon was only finalized in the later 4th century, attempts to form a catalogue of reliable documents reflecting an 'orthodox' position began as early as around 200.

As for Barbara Thiering, she is one of the most controversial figures working in New Testament scholarship today. Many are impressed by her books, but I can't include myself in that group. I read only half of one of them, and have to admit that I found much of her methodology and reasoning dubious or even bizarre. The thesis in "The Book That Jesus Wrote" in my estimation falls into the latter category.

Frank writes:

    You present a very compelling case, and I'll never look at the gospels the same way again. There is one topic that I haven't seen you address. You place Mark, and his community, in Syria. Yet there is the letter from Clement of Alexandria discovered in 1958 by Morton Smith. If authentic, the letter places Mark in Alexandria when he wrote his gospel and also identifies him as an apostle of Paul. And then, of course, there is the section that the bishop wanted removed from the gospel, the main purpose of the letter.... I don't see anything in this that contradicts your argument. In fact, it seems to be somewhat supportive in a round about way.

Response to Frank:

Secret Mark a Fraud?

I have cut most of what Frank said in his letter about the content of so-called Secret Mark and what it might signify, because it is rendered rather moot by the now widespread opinion among scholars that Secret Mark, and Morton Smith's discovery of it, is a fraud, and that Morton Smith himself (now deceased) was the most likely perpetrator. I am not familiar with the details this opinion is based on, but when a document or artifact claiming to provide special insight into a contentious subject no longer exists or cannot be supplied for independent study, that tends to be a dead give-away. There have been those who still defend Smith, or who claim that a fraud of this nature would have been too difficult to pull off, but these days such objections are rather naive. We have experienced too many frauds in the modern era, and not only to do with biblical research or even history. More than that I can't say in this particular case, but I point this out in answer to Frank because I still see frequent comment about Secret Mark on places like internet discussion boards with no acknowledgement or apparent awareness of the current negative judgment about it.

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