The gospels are the foundation of Christianity and by extension of Western society. In his book “New Testament History and Literature”, Dale B. Martin argues that although the New Testament is considered a “foundational document” for Western civilisation, that statement doesn’t really mean much as many of “the most culturally significant things about the New Testament have not been things that are actually in the New Testament studied historically, but things that people think are in the New Testament”.
For example, the immaculate conception (that of Mary), the fact that Peter founded the church in Rome, Peter being crucified upside-down and the idea of Satan and his demons being fallen angels are ideas that are not found in any of the texts of the New Testament. Other doctrines such as the doctrine of the Trinity, that Jesus died at the age of 33 and the 3 wise men who visit the baby Jesus are not found in the Bible, but merely hinted at in the text or assumed by theologians. Even more surprising is that many things found in the Gospels and the New Testament are completely unknown to most modern, Christians and non-Christians alike. Examples include that Jesus taught that his disciples should “hate” their family members including parents and wives and that divorce is not permitted under any circumstances.
Although everyone knows something from the gospels (“I am the way the truth and the life”, let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, “Turn the other cheek”), most people haven’t actually read the gospels and therefore do not grasp the significance of there being 4 differing accounts of the life of Jesus.
Fundamentalists tend to either ignore these differences or else explain them away in an effort to have their faith in Biblical infallibility vindicated at all costs. Contradictions between the 4 texts are excused by engaging in feats of mental gymnastics. However, the honest scholar must try to take a neutral stand and look at the texts in an objective way without letting her own preconceptions and prejudices get in the way of literary analysis.
When you read the stories of the gospels, several things strike you immediately. Matthew and Luke start an account of Jesus’ life from before his birth whereas Mark and John begin at his baptism. But that is where the similarity between Mark and John end. John is so different from the other 3 gospels in content, style and theology that Matthew, Mark and Luke are referred to collectively as the “Synoptic Gospels”.
Looking at the gospels individually, we can pick out some of the major differences between them. As we look at various features of the gospels which make them stand out as unique, please be mindful that textual criticism is not the same as the defamation of the character of the author(s).
(n.b. Scholars are not actually sure whether or not individuals named “Matthew”, “Mark”, “Luke” and “John” really penned the gospels which bear their names. However, throughout this essay I will refer to both gospel and writer by a single proper name. For example, the Gospel of Mark will be called “Mark” and the author of the gospel will also be “Mark”. Context will reveal whether we are talking about the book or the author).
I start here with Mark not only because I find Mark the most interesting of the gospels but also because most scholars hold to a hypothesis called Marcan Priority, meaning that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke made direct use of Mark as a source. In order to explain the fact that Matthew and Luke share so much not found in Mark, the hypothesis also holds that Matthew and Luke also drew from an additional hypothetical document known as Q (from the German word “Quelle”, meaning “source”). A textual comparison shows that Matthew contains 51% and Luke contains 53% of Mark’s words.
Mark is a very vivid and dramatic piece of prose which portrays Jesus as a human with thoughts, dreams and strong emotions. However, strangely, Mark is full of textual oddities, redundant expressions and even spelling mistakes and grammatical errors.
When reading the Bible, some may have noticed something about the text of Mark that they may not be able to quantify. Mark’s style of Greek is unique among the Gospels—unsophisticated and unrefined, often awkward or even improper and that style sometimes even seeps into translations. Mark is full of Latinisms, in idioms and vocabulary.
Mark also starts so many of his sentences with “and”. Here is a translated portion of the baptism of Jesus in Mark chapter one to illustrate this phenomenon:
9. And it came to pass in those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John at the Jordan;
10. and immediately coming up from the water, he saw the heavens dividing, and the Spirit as a dove coming down upon him;
11. and a voice came out of the heavens, , ‘Thou art My Son – the Beloved, in whom I did delight’.(Young’s Literal Translation)
The pattern continues for the whole book of Mark. In fact, 410 of the 678 verses in Mark start with “and” (kai)
12. And immediately doth the Spirit put him forth to the wilderness,
13. and he was there in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by the Adversary, and he was with the beasts, and the messengers were ministering to him.
14. And after the delivering up of John, . . .
15. and saying — `Fulfilled hath been the time, . . .
16. And, walking by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon . . .
17. and Jesus said to them, `Come ye after me, . . .
18. and immediately, having left their nets, they followed him.
19. And having gone on thence a little, he saw James of Zebedee, and John his brother, and they were in the boat refitting the nets,
20. and immediately he called them, . . .
21. And they go on to Capernaum, . . .
22. and they were astonished at his teaching, . . .
23. And there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out,
24. saying, `Away! what — to us and to thee, Jesus the Nazarene? . . .
25. And Jesus rebuked him, . . .
26. and the unclean spirit having torn him, and having cried . . .
27. and they were all amazed, . . .
28. And the fame of him went forth immediately to all the region, . . .
29. And immediately, having come forth out of the synagogue, . . .
30. and the mother-in-law of Simon was lying fevered, and immediately they tell him about her,
31. and having come near, he raised her up, having laid hold of her hand, and the fever left her immediately, and she was ministering to them.
32. And evening having come, when the sun did set, . . .
33. and the whole city was gathered together near the door,
34. and he healed many who were ill of manifold diseases, and many demons he cast forth, and was not suffering the demons to speak . . .
35. And very early, it being yet night, having risen, he went forth, and went away to a desert place, and was there praying;
36. and Simon and those with him went in quest of him,
37. and having found him, they say to him, — `All do seek thee;’
38. and he saith to them, `We may go to the next towns . . . .
39. And he was preaching in their synagogues, in all Galilee, and is casting out the demons,
40. and there doth come to him a leper, . . .
41. And Jesus having been moved with compassion . . .
42. and he having spoken, immediately the leprosy went away from him, and he was cleansed.
43. And having sternly charged him, immediately he put him forth,
44. and saith to him, `See thou mayest say nothing to any one . . .
45. And he, having gone forth, began to proclaim much, and to . .(Young’s Literal Translation)
Many Bible translations try to hide this by translating the Greek word “kai” variously as “so, then, now, while, well, also, after, however, at that & furthermore”, but even with such modification, it is still very noticeable.
Also, it can be noted that Mark uses the word “euthus”, (immediately) many times throughout the book. It is found 41 times in Mark, but only 8 times in Matthew and 3 times in Luke. The obvious effect is to convey a sense of fast-moving hectic or even frantic immediacy. However, it also betrays a lack of sophistication and variety of vocabulary. The 3rd century theologian Hippolytus of Rome calls Mark “ho kolobodaktulos“, meaning “the stump-fingered one” probably referring to his opinion that Mark is an unsophisticated work of literature.
In addition to his crude and repetitive vocabulary, Mark sometimes speaks in Greek slang. In Mark 2:4 he uses the word “krabbaton” which is a slang term for bed equivalent to “the sack” in modern English. Matthew and Luke use “klinês” which is a more formal form of the word “bed”.
Some scholars have, though, suggested that Mark deliberately used a “hoi polloi” style of Greek in order to appeal to and be more accessible to the less educated. Many others suggest that it was originally read out ad lib and written down by a scribe with all the imperfections and repetitions that that method involves. Still others have posited that it was intended to have been read orally, with an emphasis on the performer’s gestures and tone of voice to bring out special emphases. However, as almost all ancient texts were dictated, transcribed by a scribe and designed to be read out loud, the latter 2 theories are slightly suspect.
To add weight to our suspicions, real mistakes and oddities do show up in the text of Mark belying any claims that his unrefined Greek was deliberate.
– In Mark 4:41 the singular form of “obey” (hypakoui) is used when the subject is plural.
– In Mark 5:10 when the demons are speaking, Mark says that ” he begged” (parekalei) when it should have been “they begged” (parekalesan).
– Mark often uses redundant words in his writing. In Mark 1:32 he says “when the evening came when the sun went down” (opsias de genomenês hote edy ho hêlios) but the equivalent story in Matthew 8:16 simply says “that evening” (opsias de genomenês) and in Luke says “when the sun went down” (dynontos de tou hêlio).
– In Mark 15:34 where Jesus says “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”. Matthew corrects the spelling to “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”.
So if Marcan Priority is true, and Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, it means they corrected the spelling and grammar of the parts of Mark that they copied word for word.
What can we conclude from Mark’s writing style? Mark’s gospel is in a form of Greek which could be expected from an immigrant who was not a native Greek speaker. A non-academic, probably Aramaic speaking, fisherman would fit this description, perfectly.
Additionally, there are also some theological differences between the Jesus of Mark and that of John.
Mark has fewer references to Jesus fulfilling Old Testament prophecy and is just a relatively sparse account of Jesus’ life.
Mark doesn’t write about the birth of Jesus for a different reason from that of John. As Mark’s gospel has a very simple message with very little prophecy fulfilment, it is quite possible that Jesus’ birth simply wasn’t important enough to Mark to mention. John on the other hand is likely to have deliberately omitted the nativity for a specific reason that we will see later.
While Jesus tells the parable of the sower, Mark paints a picture of the disciples as dull-witted, non-comprehending men (Mark 4:13) and Matthew and Luke transformed them into a group of awe struck worshiping men (Matthew 13:18 and Luke 8:11).
Mark portrays Jesus as occasionally getting angry and indignant (Mark 10:13-14). Whereas in the parallel stories found in Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ anger and rage is omitted (Matthew 19:13-14, Luke 18:15-17).
Finally and significantly, Jesus’s last words in Mark are “My god my God, why have you forsaken me?”… and in John they are “It is finished”. This is profound in that the two phrases show a radically different conception of Jesus and his relationship to God. In Mark he seems reluctant to undergo crucifixion and accuses God of abandoning him, whereas in John he is portrayed as having accomplished what he set out to do.
Why do Matthew and Luke include the nativity story?
As I said, MATTHEW and LUKE are said to contain 51% and 53% respectively of Mark’s original words. Both Matthew and Luke added the stories of the nativity and the (contradictory) genealogies of Jesus’ ancestry in order to connect Jesus to the messianic prophecies of the Hebrew Bible. They also contain the sermon on the mount delivered by Jesus which is not found in Mark.
Let’s look at Matthew and Luke in more detail.
Matthew and Luke
Although Mark’s gospel was written first, Matthew’s was placed at the beginning of the New Testament due to its Jewish orientated themes. It was thought to provide an appropriate segue from the Old to the New Testaments.
Matthew is very careful to link Jesus’ teachings to Judaism and traces his ancestry in detail back to Abraham. On the other hand though, Matthew contains some of the most vehement polemic against Jews in the New Testament. He challenges the idea of a mere external adherence to the Mosaic Law, and values instead an internal spiritual transformation.
Matthew, by tradition, is attributed to the apostle of that name. Like Mark, this idea stems from the works of Papias and Irenaeus who claimed that, “Matthew composed the sayings in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.” If such a work of sayings ever existed, it is probably not the same as what we call “Matthew” today. For one thing, Mathew is not a “sayings” gospel and was not written in Hebrew. The identity of this “sayings of Matthew” may forever remain a mystery.
Furthermore, Matthew is largely dependent on Mark and (as is hypothesised) another Greek “sayings” tradition called Q (which stands for the German word “Quelle” meaning “source”).
Matthew’s dependence on Mark also puts its date somewhere around 80 CE (if not later) which means that the author was almost certainly not a contemporary of Jesus, especially at a time when people rarely lived beyond 40 or 50 years.
It is almost impossible that Matthew is an eyewitness or that he was an apostle of Jesus because of the fact that Matthew copies so extensively from secondary sources. An eyewitness usually doesn’t copy word-for-word from other sources.
The author of Matthew never claims to have been an apostle or an eyewitness, never states his name and never claims to have known any other witnesses.
The traditional author of Luke (and Acts) claims to be a doctor and a travelling companion of Paul named Luke. Neither Luke nor Paul is an eyewitness of Jesus and the author of Luke-Acts never claims to have known Paul.
Luke knew Josephus, which puts the
Gospel into the mid 90’s AD which means that Paul had been dead 30 years before
Luke was written.
Luke, like Matthew is dependent on both Mark and Q which probably means that Luke had no access to first-hand accounts from eyewitnesses (if indeed there were any).
Matthew and Luke differ on a number of important points. Luke says that Joseph took his family to Jerusalem after Jesus was born. Joseph brought Mary and Jesus to Jerusalem after Jesus’s circumcision and the days of purification prescribed in Leviticus 12:2-8. “And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.” (Luke 2:22)
Gospel of Matthew says they did not go. Joseph was afraid to go to Jerusalem because he feared Herod’s son Archelaus, who was then ruling in Jerusalem. “But when he heard that Archelaus reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth.” (Matthew 2:22-23)
In Matthew, the angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him that Mary’s child will save his people from their sins. In Luke, the angel tells Mary that her son will be great, he will be called the Son of the Most High and will rule on David’s throne forever. A short time later Mary tells Elizabeth that all generations will consider her (Mary) blessed because of the child that will be born to her.
If this were true, Mary and Joseph should have had the highest regard for their son. Instead, we read in Mark 3:20-21 that Jesus’ family tried to take custody of him because they thought he had lost his mind. And later, in Mark 6:4-6 Jesus complained that he received no honour among his own relatives and his own household.
According to Matthew, Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1). According to Luke, Jesus was born during the first census in Israel, while Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:2). This is impossible because Herod died in March of 4 BC and the census took place in 6 and 7 AD, about 10 years after Herod’s death. Some biblical inerrancy advocates try to manipulate the text to mean this was the first census while Quirinius was governor and that the first census of Israel recorded by historians took place later. However, the literal meaning of the Greek “αὕτη ἡ ἀπογραφὴ πρώτη ἐγένετο ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου…” is “this was the first census taken, while Quirinius was governor …” In any event, Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until well after Herod’s death.
Matthew has Mary, Joseph and Jesus fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod, and says that the return of Jesus from Egypt was in fulfilment of prophecy (Matthew 2:15). However, Matthew quotes only the second half of Hosea 11:1. The first half of the verse makes it very clear that the verse refers to God calling the Israelites out of Egypt in the exodus led by Moses and has nothing to do with Jesus.
As further proof that the slaughter of the innocents and the flight into Egypt never happened, one need only compare the Matthew and Luke accounts of what happened between the time of Jesus’ birth and the family’s arrival in Nazareth. According to Luke, forty days (the purification period) after Jesus was born, his parents brought him to the temple, made the prescribed sacrifice, and returned to Nazareth. Into this same time period Matthew somehow manages to squeeze: the visit of the Magi to Herod, the slaughter of the innocents and the flight into Egypt, the sojourn in Egypt, and the return from Egypt. All of this action must occur in the forty-day period because Matthew has the Magi visit Jesus in Bethlehem before the slaughter of the innocents.
In summary, “Gospel of Matthew relates the appearance of an angel, in a dream, to Joseph; the wise men from the east; the massacre of the innocents; and the flight to Egypt. The Gospel of Luke mentions none of these but describes the conception and birth of John the Baptist; the appearance of an angel to Mary; the worldwide census; the birth in a manger, and the choir of angels; none of these is mentioned in Matthew. The contradictions between the accounts, also explain the birth in Bethlehem in different ways (Luke says they lived in Nazareth and only moved to Bethlehem briefly for the census, Matthew implies that they lived in Bethlehem and only moved to Nazareth on their return from Egypt); gives two different genealogies of Jesus, and appear to use a contradictory time frame (Matthew’s account places the birth during the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC, but Luke dates it to the census of Quirinius ten years after Herod’s death).
As a result, some critical scholars see the nativity stories either as completely fictional accounts, or at least constructed from traditions which predate the Gospels. Brown, for instance, who observes that “it is unlikely that either account is completely historical”, suggests that the account in Matthew is based on an earlier narrative patterned on traditions about the birth of Moses.”
In terms of literary style, the parallel passages in Matthew and especially in Luke tend to be in a more polished and eloquent style of literary Greek. Where Mark uses an unusual word or expression, Matthew and Luke often substitute something more natural.
The passages from Matthew and Luke, detailing Jesus’ baptism, and paralleling Mark 1: 9-11 are shown here:
13 Then cometh Jesus from Galilee upon the Jordan, unto John to be baptized by him,
14 but John was forbidding him, saying, ‘I have need by thee to be baptized — and thou dost come unto me!’
15 [Answering, however, Jesus] said to him, ‘Suffer now, for thus it is becoming to us to fulfil all righteousness,’ then he doth suffer him.
16 Having been baptized [now], Jesus went up immediately from the water, and lo, opened to him were the heavens, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him,
17 and lo, a voice out of the heavens, saying, ‘This is My Son — the Beloved, in whom I did delight.’(Young’s Literal Translation)
Luke 3: 21-22
21 […] It came to pass, in all the people being baptised, Jesus also being baptised, and praying, the heaven was opened,
22 and the Holy Spirit came down in a bodily appearance, as if a dove, upon him, and a voice came out of heaven, saying, ‘Thou art My Son — the Beloved, in thee I did delight.’(Young’s Literal Translation)
Though they often add material of substance, they tend to trim down Mark’s redundancies and verbosity and express his meaning more concisely. Supporters of Marcan priority see this as Matthew and Luke improving the style of the material they incorporate from Mark.
Supporters of Marcan posteriority, however, see Mark as recasting material from Matthew and Luke in his own peculiar style, less like lofty literature and more in a vivid, fast-moving style befitting oral preaching.
From the very beginning of John’s gospel, we see a completely different account. John has a concept of Jesus which is more divine and transcendent.
Recall how in the documentary hypothesis, the J source of the Tanakh anthropomorphises Yahweh, whereas the P source views Elohim as a transcendent being. Similarly, we see in the gospels that Mark, Matthew and Luke present Jesus as a man, but John presents portrays him as “God incarnate” or “God become flesh”.
The gospel of John begins with a poetic hymn that tells the story of Jesus’ origin and function. It is worth noting that John starts in exactly the same way as Genesis 1:1 (the P source): “In the beginning…”. In effect, John’s Jesus is to Mark’s Jesus, as P’s Elohim is to J’s Yahweh: a deified versus an anthropomorphic version of a character.
Whereas Mark doesn’t discuss Jesus’ origins at all, and Matthew and Luke describe Jesus as being born as a human, John completely bypasses stories of Jesus’ human childhood in favour of describing Jesus’ heavenly origins as the “the Word” of God (ho logos), the Creator of everything, the Word became flesh and the Light of the world (John 1:1-18). Evidently, being born is not very divine:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God;
2 this one was in the beginning with God;
3 all things through him did happen, and without him happened not even one thing that hath happened.
4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men,
5 and the light in the darkness did shine, and the darkness did not perceive it.
6 There came a man — having been sent from God — whose name [is] John,
7 this one came for testimony, that he might testify about the Light, that all might believe through him;
8 that one was not the Light, but — that he might testify about the Light.
9 He was the true Light, which doth enlighten every man, coming to the world;
10 in the world he was, and the world through him was made, and the world did not know him:
11 to his own things he came, and his own people did not receive him;
12 but as many as did receive him to them he gave authority to become sons of God — to those believing in his name,
13 who — not of blood nor of a will of flesh, nor of a will of man but — of God were begotten.
14 And the Word became flesh, and did tabernacle among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of an only begotten of a father, full of grace and truth.
15 John doth testify concerning him, and hath cried, saying, `This was he of whom I said, He who after me is coming, hath come before me, for he was before me;’
16 and out of his fulness did we all receive, and grace over-against grace;
17 for the law through Moses was given, the grace and the truth through Jesus Christ did come;
18 God no one hath ever seen; the only begotten Son, who is on the bosom of the Father — he did declare.(Young’s Literal Translation)
In John, Jesus is the ‘I am” (John 8:58, John 18:5) as phrase with clear links to Yahweh’s statement “ehyeh asher ehyeh” in Exodus 3:14. John further deifies Jesus by stating that he is one with the Father (John 10:30), that he receives the same honour that one gives to the Father (John 5:23), and that he knows all things something only God can do (John 21:17). John even claims that he shared God’s glory before the creation (John 17:5) even though in Isaiah 42:8 God says he shares his glory with no one.
Just as the P source’s Elohim is less hands-on than J’s Yahweh, John contains very few accounts of the healing and miracles of Jesus, Jesus doesn’t cast out any demons at all in John. In fact, all Jesus’ miracles are “nature miracles” in John. John’s Jesus has no dealings with the poor, the sick or the suffering, and certainly doesn’t hang around with prostitutes and tax-collectors.
John’s purpose in writing his gospel was evidently to develop a Christology – an explanation of Christ’s nature and origin. Whereas Mark’s gospel depicts a vivid and earthy Jesus, John’s gospel is filled with lengthy discourses describing Jesus’ divinity.
The narrative of John opens up in 1:23 with John the Baptist identifying himself as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 40:3). John seems concerned with linking Jesus’ existence to the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible.
John doesn’t even mention Jesus’ baptism directly, instead comparing John the Baptist’s baptism with water with Jesus’ baptism with Holy Spirit in John 1:29-34:
29 On the morrow John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, ‘Lo, the Lamb of God, who is taking away the sin of the world;
30 This is he concerning whom I said, After me doth come a man, who hath come before me, because he was before me:
31 [Also] I knew him not, but, that he might be manifested to Israel, because of this I came with the water baptizing.
32 And John testified, saying — ‘I have seen the Spirit coming down, as a dove, out of heaven, and it remained on him;
33 [Also] I did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water, He said to me, On whomsoever thou mayst see the Spirit coming down, and remaining on him, this is he who is baptizing with the Holy Spirit;
34 [Also] I have seen, and have testified, that this is the Son of God.’(Young’s Literal Translation)
Other minor differences between John and the Synoptic gospels are that Jesus’s ministry takes place only in Jerusalem and bits of Judea for 3 years, but in Mark, Matthew and Luke it is only 1 year and mostly in Galilee with the occasional visit to Jerusalem and that John describes none of his parables or sermons.
Finally, in the latter part of John, the narrative moves toward Jesus’ glorification through crucifixion and resurrection.
As we can see from this very brief overview of the Synoptic and Johannine Gospels, the tests which some hold to be the “four foundation stones of Western civilisation” are actually very little known in reality.
Within the gospels and between them, there are a number of contradictions and historical errors, there are spelling and grammatical mistakes and vast differences in the theology and focus of each gospel. None were written by eyewitnesses to the events. Nonetheless, these books are fascinating to study and the many faults and stylistic choices made within lend the texts a certain charm and give us an acute insight into the personalities of the people who wrote them.
Young’s Literal Translation (YTL) has been used throughout as it shows a closer connection to the original Greek text. Modifications to the translation, either additions to or omissions from text, have been made to ensure an even closer fit with the literal Greek text. All additions or omissions are marked with [square parentheses].
Most translations render the word καὶ (kaì) as “and”, but YLT also renders the word κἀγὼ (kagō) as “and”. I have changed this to “also” to be more accurate to the original Greek and placed this in [ ] square brackets.
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Bauckham, Richard (2006). Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. p. 220.
Carlson (September 2004). “Synpotic Problem”. Hypotyposeis.org.
Dungan, David L. (1999). A history of the synoptic problem: the canon, the text, the composition and the interpretation of the Gospels. pp. 112–144.
Edwards, James R. (2009). The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition. pp. 141–148.
Goodacre, Mark (2001). The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze. p. 16.
Hengel, Martin (2000). The four Gospels and the one Gospel of Jesus Christ: an investigation of the collection and origin of the Canonical Gospels. pp. 34–115.
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