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Alternate Explanations for the Resurrection of Jesus

Guess what: they don’t make sense.

The resurrection of Jesus is the profoundest, and most vital element of Christianity. If Jesus is not physically raised from the dead, then Christianity is a false religion, a false hope, pitiable, and worthless.

If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins….If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

1 Cor. 15: 14-19

But if Jesus is physically raised from the dead, then those who trust in Him have the surest confidence, the greatest hope, the most wondrous peace and pardon, and the assurance of eternal life in good relation to God.

But, in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

1 Cor. 15:20

And so, in considering whether or not Jesus is raised from the dead, I thought I must also thoroughly examine the numerous hypotheses that are contrary to the resurrection as explanations for the data about Jesus’ resurrection. I have endured my own personal doubts and struggles with the resurrection of Jesus by examining Scripture, as well as reading what relevant material I can on this issue. One enlightening book, that I believe is an important work, is Michael Licona’s “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach”. I will summarize some of his arguments throughout, as he himself summarizes and distills a large amount of scholarly work into understandable nuggets. The question I asked as I read this work, and I believe many others ask, is, “What else, aside from the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, could explain the data?”

What is the Data?

Before we dive into it, let me simply relate what most scholars believe to be the best data related to the resurrection of Jesus. Licona argues, “Paul and the oral traditions embedded throughout the New Testament literature provide our most promising material. Other sources, like the canonical Gospels, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, the Acts speeches, and the Gospel of Thomas may also at times be helpful. Many…other sources may likewise assist us to varying degrees” (Licona, p. 275). If you want a full list, including analysis of lesser-known materials, and a discussion of how one determines the quality of a historical source, check out the book’s chapter on the literature, as well as pages 588-600.

What is the “Historical Bedrock”?

From this data, scholars have concluded that there is a definite “historical bedrock”, or something that is historically certain. For something to achieve this kind of “historical bedrock”, Licona (and Habermas) argues that it must have nearly unanimous scholarly consensus, and the scholars must have heterogeneous horizons (presuppositions or biases). Now, personally, I think the idea of “historical bedrock” places too much trust in human reason and scholarly consensus, and may also be a somewhat misleading term (I’ll be writing a follow-up post on this). At the same time, it is absolutely worthwhile to show that scholars of various stripes, and almost every single scholar, has agreed with the testimony of the data to certain things.

There are, at minimum, three items in the “historical bedrock”:

1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
2. Very shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected.
3. Within a few years after Jesus’ death, Paul converted after experiencing what he interpreted as a postresurrection appearance of Jesus to him.

Licona, p. 468 of Resurrection

In addition to these three things, Licona admits two additional items that may constitute “historical bedrock” as well. One is that the majority of critical scholars believe that James, the brother of Jesus, believed he had seen his Brother in a resurrection appearance, and therefore converted to faith, became a leader of the Church, and died a martyr (Licona, p. 460). I’m not entirely sure why Licona excludes this from the historical bedrock. He may do this because he does not consider the sources as historically reliable as those employed for the three elements of the historical bedrock, but I am just guessing as to his motive.

Another additional item that may constitute “historical bedrock” is the historicity of the empty tomb. According to Habermas, about two-thirds of scholars agree that the empty tomb is historical (even including Ehrman). This is not quite the near unanimity that is hoped for in scholarly conclusions. In addition, agreement or disagreement about the historicity of the empty tomb is not at heterogeneous as one would hope. For this reason, Licona does not include this in the historical bedrock, but still presents it as a weighty piece of evidence.

So, all that said, how does one account for the “historical bedrock” within the data, aside from actually believing in the resurrection of Jesus?


Theory Type 1: Jesus Didn’t Die

There are three different explanations based off of the argument that Jesus didn’t really die. Each idea suggests that the biblical narrative is wrong about the resurrection because it is also wrong about Jesus’ death (or person). The first idea related to this is that

1. Jesus didn’t die because Jesus didn’t exist, or we can’t know anything true about Jesus.

Summary

The logic behind this view is threefold: one, that the supernatural is outside of the domain of the historical, two, that religious texts cannot be trusted for historical information, and three, that the historian (or observer) cannot get past their own horizon. The first logical point is based out of Hume’s conjecture that miracles are impossible to prove empirically. One well-known example of this is Geza Vermes, who views the resurrection with historical agnosticism (we can’t know because these things are outside of the historian’s practice). The second and third logical points are based in a more postmodern conception of religious texts and of interpreter. These two points assume that religious texts are necessarily biased to promote, establish, and maintain power, that “history is written by the winners”, and that individual interpreters cannot get past their own horizon (personal experiences/biases) in order to adequately perceive previous events. In addition, many who hold to this view argue that all we have about the existence of Jesus is from religious texts, and that, therefore, we have no trustworthy historical information about Jesus. Based on this line of reasoning, some people even deny the existence of Jesus. In this extreme interpretation, the “disciples” and/or “institutional Church” adopted & wrote Scriptures to fit their political-power agenda. They argue that the existence of Jesus was concocted to enable men to enslave others to a view of self-denial and subservience, based upon the example of Jesus’ subservience.

Critique

There are so many problems with this view of the resurrection! For one, Jesus’ death is part of the “historical bedrock”. This view denies what is historically clear. Second, the supernatural is not outside of the domain of historical inquiry. This has been dealt with in depth by Licona’s work in chapter 2. Not only that, but if the reader holds all three above-mentioned logical points together, they end up in a contradictory cocktail. For example, if you believe that a person’s “horizon” cannot be overcome so as to truthfully understand history, then not only is the supernatural outside of the domain of historical inquiry, but so is everything in the universe. The interpreter will be stuck in solipsism, incapable of arriving at any accurate conclusion. Third, the personal “horizon” can be both adequately understood and resolved so that individuals can interpret history adequately and truthfully. Licona deals with this in chapter 1 of his work. Fourth, religious texts (whatever that means, a subject for another time) can be trusted for historical information. Albeit, they must carefully scrutinized to ensure that the historical picture is not purposefully twisted or skewed to fit an esoteric or mythological conception. But, to my knowledge, all historians rely upon and trust, to a certain extent, religious texts as sources of history, especially since they are objects of history. In fact, I think I am right in asserting that the majority of historical research is dependent upon religious texts. Fifth, we must acknowledge that these particular religious texts, the gospels and epistles, are accurate, abundant, rich historical sources, and are not mythological or esoteric pictures that have no bearing on physical or historical events. Last of all, the information we have about both the existence of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus is not only dependent upon religious texts but also upon non-religious or even counter-religious texts (see Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Mara bar Serapion, Thallus, Lucian, Celsus, Rabbinic Sources).

In summary, I could never embrace this view because it butchers the human mind, destroys reason, misunderstands religious texts, and/or unnecessarily assumes the miraculous cannot be reasonably investigated.

2. Jesus didn’t die, but was replaced on the cross.

Summary

This is the a variation on the “Jesus didn’t die theory”, which argues that Jesus did not die because He was replaced on the cross. This is suggested in some of the gnostic “gospels”, and by implication in the Qur’an (4. 157-158). It has been introduced into popular, Western culture today by the mock historical “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” as well as “The Da Vinci Code”. These sources suggest that a Jesus-look-a-like, either Simon of Cyrene or Judas Iscariot, took His place on the cross. This means that Jesus had to go somewhere after his fake death. Some interpreters suggest Jesus escaped to India, or France, and died there. Others propose that Jesus did not die but was immediately taken up into heaven, and instead will die on the day of resurrection (Surah 19.33).

Critique

I cannot adopt any of these views of Jesus, for one, because they rely upon falsified history. Again, Jesus’ death is part of the “historical bedrock”. This view denies what is historically clear. The Qur’an was written far too late to be an accurate explanation of the events of the life of Jesus, or a “correction” to “corrupted” biblical texts. “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” and “The Da Vinci Code” are both examples of the kind of fake history that has seeped into popular-level historicism, and serve as extraordinarily poor reasons to believe Jesus did not die on the cross. Further, the purported sources (gnostic “gospels”, Qur’an) have very definite reasons for rejecting the death of Jesus. Both the gnostic texts and the Qur’an assume it is inappropriate for the Savior (gnostic) or the Prophet (Qur’an) to suffer such a shameful death. Contrary to current popular teaching today, the gnostics were never an accepted group of Christians, and their teachings were not advanced by eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ. They derived their view of reality from extra-biblical sources, and were repudiated by both Jewish and Christian apologists. This means there is incredible bias in both the gnostic gospel and the Qur’an to go against the eyewitness narrative. Indeed, while it may be conjectured that Jesus did not die on the cross, this goes against clear, reliable testimony that says otherwise. Conjecture should not outweigh reputable eyewitness testimony. I can conjecture, all I want, for whatever presupposed reasons that I have, that Abraham Lincoln was not shot by John Wilkes Booth, but whatever theory I adopt will go against the eyewitness testimony.

3. Jesus didn’t die, but was injured by the cross, and was resuscitated in the tomb or by His disciples.

Summary

This is a recent, innovative explanation by the Lloyd Davies duo, and there is a variant on this theory by Barbara Thiering. It argues that Jesus was “nearly dead” (yes you can think of that scene from “The Princess Bride”), but was revived by His disciples. He was never placed in a tomb in the first place.

Critique

This is more plausible than the other two variants of the “Jesus didn’t die on the cross” theory. The reason for this is because it accepts more elements of the biblical witness as truthful. But, despite its plausibility being greater than the other two variants, it remains a wholly implausible theory. Aside from ignoring the repeated eyewitness testimony that Jesus was truly dead by crucifixion (“historical bedrock” item #1), this theory also assumes that Roman executioners were incredibly bad at their job. Romans regularly practiced crucifixion. They were not amateurs who took living persons down off of the cross before their death. In addition, they would have seen to it that a criminal accused of sedition against Rome, someone who claimed to be the King of the Jews, would actually be killed.


Theory Type 2: Jesus Did Die

These types of theories admit the death of Jesus as historical truth, and intend to present plausible explanations for “historical bedrock” items #2 and 3. They argue that the resurrection appearances, the conversion of Paul and James, and the empty tomb have other, better explanations than the resurrection of Jesus. We’ll start with the most ludicrous explanations, and move on to the more commonly held ones.

1. Zombification or Re-animation of the Corpse

Summary

I’m not aware of any scholars who suggest this idea, but this sort of terminology is often slurred out by reddit-level atheists. The logic is that a Christian will argue “but zombification isn’t real because it never happens”, and then the redditor can respond, “and resurrection isn’t real because it never happens”.

Critique

The zombification argument is a similar type of logical fallacy (ie false equivalency) to the Giant Flying Spaghetti monster argument. It is not a warranted explanation for the data, and cannot genuinely compare to the enormous magnitude of historical and religious (prophetic) warrant for a conclusion that Jesus is resurrected.

2. Demonic Activity

Summary

This is a hypothetical theory I’ve extrapolated from some rabbinic, Jewish teaching on for why Jesus was capable of performing miracles. None of the rabbinic sources I have found admit an actual resurrection (Gittin 56b-57a assumes Jesus is dead). Many of the rabbinic texts contradict one another in their attempts to explain what happened during Jesus’ ministry, and after his death. One rabbi argues that Jesus did not perform any miracles in the first place (Iggerot HaRambam, Iggeret Teiman 13). But other rabbinic texts argue that Jesus was executed for sorcery, or demonic-empowered miracles (Sanhedrin 43a, 107b; Sotah 47a). Most rabbinic texts do not give an explanation for why the disciples continued to teach that Jesus is alive, but some rabbinic texts did believe the disciples performed miracles by demonic power (Tosefta Chullin II, 22, 24; Y. Sabb. XIV, 14d bot.; Koh. R. I, 8.). We could extrapolate from this and propose a hypothetical theory that perhaps demons tricked the disciples, and the family of Jesus, into believing that Jesus was raised from the dead.

Critique

This hypothetical theory is not accepted by many historians for a few reasons. For one, many historians are naturalists who will not admit a supernatural explanation of any sort. For another, historians who do admit supernatural explanations find demonic activity to be a far less plausible explanation for the “historical bedrock” than the resurrection itself. An actual, physical resurrection of Jesus has far greater explanatory power for the data than the explanation of demonic activity. For one, is there a biblical example of demons having power to raise someone from the dead? This power is only ascribed to God throughout Torah. So, when we arrive at the example of a claimed-Messiah being raised from the dead, this incredible miracle has far more warrant in being ascribed to God than to demons. Secondly, demonic deception does not lead people to be reasonable or truthful, but deceivers. Contrary to rabbinic arguments, the disciples did not advance a new religion or a different worship, but they preached the fulfillment of God’s promises. I plan to write a post about this because it is a contentious topic. Third, demonic deception is a less likely explanation for the conversion of Paul, who would not be easily inclined to accept Jesus as the Messiah by any frivolous or dubious supernatural means. Fourth, demonic deception cannot explain the empty tomb, for it was not only empty to the disciples but also empty to the guards. If it is argued that the guards were duped somehow, this is unlikely, given their standards and the threat of death for failure. In the end, while I do not believe this hypothetical rabbinic conclusion in the least, I actually find it more plausible in its explanatory power for the “historical bedrock” than than the conspiracy or mass psychological impressions theories listed below, and so I plan to write an in-depth post arguing against this position.

3. Conspiracy

Summary

This is the most popular-level explanation for the data, aside from belief in the resurrection itself. It proposes that the disciples and the family of Jesus conspired to present Jesus as alive again in some form, when in fact He was really dead.

Critique

This is also an unlikely explanation. It was the theory that held me in doubt for the longest time, but I realize now that most scholars do not advance this because it has little explanatory power for the “historical bedrock”. Scholars adopt the psychological theory below because it supposedly has greater explanatory power than conspiracy. Indeed, several elements deal a death-blow to the idea of conspiracy. Let’s say we get into the mind of the early disciples: They just saw Jesus die. They are upset. They believed He was the Messiah, but Messiah’s don’t die. What should they do? Disband or re-brand? “Let’s re-brand!” they decide.

The first problem is: why? Why re-brand, so to speak? Why conspire together to present Jesus as alive in some sense, if, in fact he is dead? Some conjecture that perhaps they did this for power, money, or honor/reputation (to save face). But, given the historical circumstances, it is highly unlikely that any of these three would serve as decent motives to do something so brash. Does it seem possible that the disciples could have imagined they would gain power, money or honor by claiming that a publicly humiliated Pretender is the living King? The extreme unlikeliness of this makes me favor the hypothetical demonic-activity argument above this argument (though not anywhere near the plausibility of the actual resurrection). It seems, to me, more likely that the disciples, the family of Jesus, and Paul would act with such brazen lies because they were deceived, than that they would do so for the far-fetched idea of power, money, or reputation.

A second major flaw in this interpretation centers around the issue of narrative. They decide to stick together, and discuss how they can remain a pact, centered around this dead Jesus. How will they convince the world that Jesus is the Messiah? They must concoct a new narrative, “A miraculous resurrection occurred, and Jesus came back to life. He spoke to us for over 40 days about Himself, and then was taken away into glory.” Why would they settle for this narrative? Was there something about it that would immediately seem plausible or likely? There wasn’t anything about the setting of second-temple Judaism that lended itself to individual resurrection as “even a thing”. For all we know, it would have served as an entirely new concept that would be difficult to persuade others to adopt. If they were, indeed, seeking power, money, or honor, this explanation would be an odd and unlikely way to acquire them.

A third major flaw in this interpretation is based in the issue of eyewitnesses or testimony. If you were going to try to persuade someone of a blatant lie, how would you do it? You would present yourself as a relevant and confident authority on a subject. But, the picture the disciples paint is overtly embarrassing, or “fits the criterion of embarrassment”. For one, they claimed that women first saw Jesus alive, and testified to the disciples, and that’s what made the disciples consider the resurrection of Jesus in the first place. Why would any person, seeking to gain credibility in their culture and time, make such a claim? It is well-verified that the testimony of women was not considered reliable in that time and place, and so to claim this is the initial basis for believing in the resurrection would be conspiratorial suicide. The only reason to make such a claim about the testimony of the women was if it actually happened or they genuinely believed it happened. Two other things that meet the criterion of embarrassment are that the disciples claim they were cowardly fools who were afraid until Jesus appeared to them, and their claim that they had not understood His repeated prophecies about this. If they sought power and honor and wealth, surely it would have made more sense for them to claim they were on the “in” crew, a crew who believed Jesus all along, and had been preparing for this. In summary, Licona argues, “It does not appear that the resurrection narratives were meant to stir up confidence in church leadership” (Licona, p. 354).

4. Mass Psychological Impressions (Hallucination, Vision, Trance, Altered State of Consciousness, Angelophany)

Explanation

There are a variety of interpretations that argue that the disciples, the family of Jesus, and Paul believed that they had seen the risen Lord Jesus because of some sort of mass psychological impression. To concisely give a sense of the variety here, I will summarize some of Licona’s explanation of scholarly angles on the “mass psychological impression” theory:

Michael Goulder argues that Peter hallucinated and told the disciples. The disciples then had a communal hallucination. Paul later had a hallucination as a result of his growing dissatisfaction with rigorous Judaism, and finally editors came in and filled in the details with an explanation. Gerd Lüdemann also says that Peter hallucinated and told the disciples. The disciples then had hallucinations of Jesus and shared these with one another. The appearance to the five hundred was a mass ecstasy that began with just a few. Jesus’ brothers attended this group after hearing reports. Paul joined Christianity because he was dissatisfied with Judaism, and longed to have a lead role, so he hallucinated Jesus. More thoughtful Christians interpreted these events as a non-symbolical, physical raising of Jesus. Pieter F. Craffert attempts a post-modern approach, but essentially argues that the disciples had a shared vision which was supposedly culturally acceptable as being perceived as literal and real. Objectively, no supernatural event occurred, but subjectively, a real vision occurred. Funk & the Jesus Seminar additionally argue that the Emmaus appearance could have been an angelophany (1998, 481-82). John Dominic Crossan explains that we can’t really know if the resurrection was historical or merely parable, but what matters is the “meaning” of the story. There was an early hypothetical Passion narrative, but no one actually saw where Jesus’ body was lain. Mark invented the story of the empty tomb. The resurrection stories are considered with leadership in mind, and are visualizations of power. The disciples experienced some sort of relation to a risen Lord Jesus, either by trances, exegesis, or lifestyle. Paul was in a trance when he “saw” Jesus. He did not believe in a physical resurrection of Jesus, but a metaphorical one that is part of God’s great clean-up of the world. Jesus’ resurrection was a picture-story of His spiritual robbery of hell.

Critique

First of all, Crossan’s theory is the least plausible out of the others because it relies upon late and dubious sources, assumes “source” texts without any way to verify it, incorrectly analyzes culture, is contradictory (ie. “we can’t know if it is metaphor or not, but it was definitely metaphor and they would have thought of resurrection as crude”), and the disciples’ willingness to die for an apologetic defense of the physical resurrection makes no sense if the resurrection is just a metaphor.

But, like the hypothetical demon-influence theory, one credit to this theory in general is that it acknowledges that the disciples, the family of Jesus, and Paul really seem to believe Jesus is alive again. But, to put it bluntly, mass hallucination is not a strong possibility in general. The evidence that mass hallucination or communal psychological disturbance even occurs, or occurs to this extent, is extraordinarily skimpy. Not only that, but mass psychological disturbance does not give a plausible reason for the disciples, Jesus’ family, or Paul to be willing to die to defend the actual, physical resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15). The only way mass hallucination could carry any form of plausibility for such an extended period of time is if it was accompanied by the theory that there was ongoing demonic deception that caused the disciples, the family of Jesus, and Paul to perpetually teach the resurrection, despite all physical, spiritual, and economic reasons to desist. Even this alteration in the mass psychological disturbance theory, combined with the demonic-activity theory, is is still an implausible explanation for why they believed Jesus was alive again. In summary, while this psychological theory is the most-embraced scholarly interpretation, it is still far less plausible than an actual resurrection.


Theory Type 3: Things I Came Up With as a Mental Exercise

1. The resurrection is a fluke (not a miracle) of the non-Deified universe

Summary

This is something that, perhaps, a Western-styled-atheist or else a Buddhist might propose as a solution to the “historical bedrock”. Though the universe is purely matter, and operates according to a variety of intrinsic natural laws, these laws are often quite complicated in their interactions, and may produce unexpected results. Perhaps one of the results of these interactions is the resurrection of Jesus. After He was startlingly raised from the dead, He led a movement in secret, and eventually snuck away to another land to die in secret.

Critique

This kind of a response is more of an evasive answer than a genuine explanation. First off, it is inconsistent with naturalism, so it is a self-defeating solution. Secondly, it does not explain why Jesus predicted His own resurrection, the prophetic texts concerning the nature of the Messiah, explain the account of the ascent into heaven, or detail why the disciples would willingly suffer and die for Jesus if He escaped in cowardice or secrecy. Now, two of these critiques (Jesus’ predictions, prophetic texts) are not included in Licona’s historical work. I include them here because I think it is necessary to show that Jesus’ resurrection did not occur in an historical vacuum. There were thousands of years of prophetic texts that were fulfilled by His resurrection. A “fluke” of the naturalist universe is extraordinarily less plausible than a fulfillment of God’s plan.

2. The resurrection is the result of a monistic universe, and is one of many possible supernatural-interactions with humanity

Summary

I can imagine something like this being presented by a Hindu, a contemporary physicist who is a supernaturalist, a Hegelian, or a practitioner of the New Age. While each of these people would have a very distinct view from one another concerning the nature of the universe, two points of commonality between them would be monism and the potential for some kind of supernatural beings to interact with humanity. Given these two points of commonality, it could be argued by any of them that Jesus’ resurrection is real, but Jesus is not who the disciples claimed He was. Perhaps He is, as one mountain-woman claimed to me, “One of the many avatars”. Maybe He is Vishnu. Perhaps He is the greatest, or one of the greatest manifestations of Light. Maybe, as a friend of mine likes to claim, Jesus is the greatest manifestation of “god” yet to come. But, all of these views will argue that His resurrection did not occur by the means or for the reasons presented in the data.

Critique

In my estimation, this theory has more explanatory power than any of the naturalist arguments. It would explain why the disciples genuinely believed Jesus was raised from the dead, why His brother and Paul converted to faith, why they were willing to suffer and die for Jesus, etc. But, the resurrection of Jesus makes little sense within any of the above-mentioned views of reality. Similar to the issue above, this theory is actually inconsistent with monism, or at the very least odd or out of place. In addition, it cannot explain the vindicatory or prophetic nature of the resurrection. The resurrection was promised by prophets, and predicted by Jesus Himself with theological or meaningful reasons in mind. Here is just one example: Isaiah 53:9-12 argues that though the Messiah will die, yet because of His obedience God will bring Him back to life and honor Him. This text is set within a squarely theistic passage, and its fulfillment about four-hundred years later carries out the plans of the singular God who made the universe. It is therefore far more plausible to view the resurrection as occurring as a result of a singular God’s purpose, as He has specified, rather than as a random interaction between a monistic universe and some of its creatures.

Review

We’ve looked through what I consider potential explanations, other than the actual resurrection, for the data concerning the resurrection of Jesus. We’ve seen several explanations that ignore the “historical bedrock” or are logically fallacious, and are therefore extraordinarily foolish to adopt. We’ve also reviewed a number of interpretations that attempt to deal with the “historical bedrock” by suggesting Jesus did not actually rise from the dead. These have varying levels of insufficient explanatory power, and are therefore also unwise to adopt. The last group of views we considered was an understanding that Jesus really is raised from the dead, but not because of or by the same manner that the disciples or His family believed. We considered that this view ignores the theological (vindication) or prophetic (Saving-Messiah) context of the resurrection, and does not provide a sufficient explanation for His resurrection within the “worldview” that is contrarily advanced. I plan to write to address some of these latter views of the resurrection, since, in my view, they carry more explanatory power than any naturalistic explanation, yet are exceedingly insufficient in comparison to the Biblical explanation for the resurrection of Jesus.

He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.

1 Tim. 3:16

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