New Creation and its Discontents

In December 1945, as Allied forces were making their way through Germany arresting war criminals, two Egyptian brothers were going about their farm work near the upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi.

The day started out like any other day for twenty-six year-old, Muhammad ‘Ali al-Samman, and his fifteen-year-old brother, Abu al-Majd. On that particular day the brothers were riding on camels in search of a special soft soil that served as a fertilizer for crops.

Coming to a large boulder, they decided this looked like a good place to dig for the nitrogenous fertilizer. No sooner had the brothers begun digging when they hit the top of a red earthenware jar. This jar, which turned out to be almost a meter high, was sealed on the top with a bowl.

The discovery of this jar aroused the curiosity of the brothers, as well as the camel drivers who had accompanied them. At first, Muhammad hesitated to break the jar in case there was an evil spirit in it. However, his curiosity got the better of him when he realized the jar might contain something valuable. Lifting up his mattock, he smashed open the sealed lid.

The jar did indeed contain something valuable—something invaluable even beyond the price of gold. Yet none of the men realized this at the time. To them, they simply saw thirteen papyrus codices bound in leather, with text written in a foreign tongue.

Muhammad took the books home where their mother used some of the papyrus pages to help kindle a fire. The family soon forgot the ancient books in the events that quickly transpired. The brothers found themselves embroiled in a blood feud, in response to their father having been murdered in retaliation for beheading a man. Muhammad and Abu tracked down the man responsible for their father’s death and fell upon him. In keeping with custom of the time, the brothers hacked off the limbs of their victim, ripped out his heart, and then proceeded to eat it.

The brothers knew there would be an investigation into the murder. If the police searched their house, Muhammad feared that the mysterious manuscripts could arouse suspicion. To be on the safe side, Muhammad asked a Christian priest, al-Qummus Basiliyus ‘Abd al Masih, to keep some of the books.

Word began to spread about the mysterious books. Raghib Andrawus, a local history teacher, suspected they might be valuable, and sent one to a friend in Cairo to review.

Over the next few years, the books took a complex journey through the black market, antiquity dealers, and Egyptian government officials. Twenty years later, eleven of the original thirteen codices, along with fragments of two others, had found their way to the Coptic Museum in Cairo. At this museum the books were finally translated and published.

What were in these codices, and what made them so important? To answer this question we need to travel still further back in time to the first century, and the events leading up to the original Easter morning.

Resurrection and New Creation

In John 11, Jesus tried to comfort Martha after her brother Lazarus had died. Jesus said to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” (Jn. 11:23) Thinking He was referring to the final resurrection at the end of the age, Martha replied, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” (Jn. 11:24).

Martha’s comment reflected widespread Jewish belief that God will resurrect the righteous at the end of the age. This hope of future resurrection, though widespread in the Second Temple period, had only arisen a couple centuries earlier.[1] During most of the Old Testament period, the people of God believed that almost everyone who died went to the grave, for which the Hebrews used the term Sheol. (General exceptions to this were a handful of holy men like Abraham, Moses, and David, as well as individuals who didn’t die such as Enoch and Elijah.) Sheol was not Heaven, where God dwelt with angelic beings, but a place of death and forgetfulness (Psalms 88:10-12). Although it was sometimes suggested that the righteous who died were somehow still with God (Ps. 139:8), belief in bodily resurrection did not develop until the period of Persian occupation. By the time of the Maccabees the belief had become widespread, as reflected in texts such as 2 Maccabees.  During this period of terrible injustice, many of God’s people endured terrible torture and martyrdom for the faith. The faithful took consolation in the hope that God would one day resurrect the righteous and correct the injustices of the world.

Sometime during the Second Temple Period, a notion developed that the righteous dead would be in God’s presence waiting for the resurrection. This is reflected in texts like The Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9, where the emphasis has shifted from the righteous not being forgotten in Sheol, to the righteous actually being kept in God’s presence. This idea was likely part of the developing idea of future resurrection.

Although the hope of resurrection had become widespread by the time of Christ, it still remained controversial among a minority. This skepticism could be seen in the Jewish sect known as the Sadducees, who denied both resurrection and spirits. Jesus argued against the Sadducees, showing that the Old Testament supported resurrection (Mt. 22:31-32). But although Jesus aligned himself with then-current understandings of resurrection, He added some significant twists. Although He taught that there would be a general resurrection at the end of the age, He also taught that there would be a resurrection of one man in the middle of history as a firstfruits or anticipation of the rest (Lk. 16:21). He also offered a recapitulation of the comparatively recent understanding that the righteous would not simply wait in the grave for resurrection, but go to be with God in heaven (Jn 14:2-3).

Even Christ’s teaching had not been sufficient to prepare his disciples for what happened on Easter morning. After Jesus rose from the dead, His followers were initially very confused. What did it all mean? Some doubted (Jn. 20:24-25), while others supposed that Jesus’ resurrection body was ghostly rather than physical (Lk. 24: 37-39). Jesus worked through these confusions one at a time, in addition to spending considerable time teaching His disciples about the theological meaning of His death and resurrection (Lk. 24:13-49; Jn. 21).

After His ascension, the church continued reflecting on the implication of Easter morning. Early Christians came to understand that something transformative had occurred in Jesus’ resurrection that had implications for the entire cosmos. As the apostles continued contemplating the meaning of the resurrection, certain theological themes began to come into focus. Gradually, there emerged a family of related doctrines that we call “new creation theology.” In early Christian literature, these doctrines function as a tightly integrated whole, but for practical purposes, we can break this theology down into the following five themes.

  1. The Goodness of Creation

The Old Testament taught that creation is the work of a good God. Despite sin and corruption, God’s creation remains good. This deeply Jewish notion was picked up by the early Christians and became a hallmark of new creation theology. The goodness of creation was reaffirmed in the Christian teaching that through Christ God has begun overcoming mortality and corruptibility so creation could fully flourish.

There was something counter-cultural about this message within the world of Roman antiquity. At this time, there persisted various brutal and dehumanizing views of personhood. The body and the things of creation were put to the service of idolatry, violence and immorality, as people routinely used the materials of the world to distort themselves. The Christians combated this idolatry, not by denying the goodness of creation or the glory of the human body, but by affirming it, and by affirming that the source of creation’s life lies outside creation.

  1. The Resurrection of the Body

Building on the doctrine of creation’s goodness, the Christians taught that the creator God will glorify the physical bodies of His people, causing their once-mortal bodies to become incorruptible and deathless. By defeating death, Christ become the savior of the body, bringing the promise of resurrection to His people (2 Cor. 5:1-8).

By “resurrection,” Paul and the other early Christians did not mean the immortality of the soul (they believed in that too), but the future renewal of one’s physical body. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul used clothing as an analogy for the body, explaining that the Christians did not wish to be unclothed (without the body), but to have the heavenly clothing (a resurrected body). This understanding of resurrection enabled the Christians to put a positive valuation on the material body, over and against dehumanizing tendencies of the time.

The early Christians believed that when they died, their soul would go and be with the Lord to await the resurrection. Early Christian teachers like Paul showed that this future hope came with a present challenge: we can experience a foretaste of future glory by putting our members to the service of Christ, turning away from those things that corrupt and destroy God’s good creation. This is why St. Paul’s great discussion of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 culminated in a practical exhortation to abound in the work of the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58).

In the first generation of writers following Paul, resurrection was a constant theme. Church Fathers like Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement, and the writers of the Didache, went to pains to clarify that the bodies of departed Christians will be raised just as Christ’s physical body was raised from the dead.

  1. The Redemption of Creation

Not only had Christ given hope to His followers that they would rise from the dead, but His resurrection pointed towards a renewal of the present physical world (1 Cor. 15). The early Christians taught that the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection unleashed a sanctifying power throughout the entire cosmos. St. Paul discussed this in terms of the Father reconciling all things to Himself, both in the seen and unseen realms (Col. 1:20). In some mysterious sense, matter itself is being sanctified by God, in fulfillment of ancient promises that God will remake heaven and earth (Is. 11, 65-66). The whole hope of Israel—that Abraham’s descendants would be a blessing to all nations—seemed to be working itself out in the apostles’ ministry.

This understanding was reflected in the ancient prayer, “Verily, all creation together is regenerated by the Holy Spirit, and returns to its former being…”[2] The early church taught that this remaking of creation would culminate in Christ’s return, when God’s glorified people would reign with Him in the new heavens and the new earth (Ephesians 2:6; 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 5:10; 20:6; 22:5).

  1. The Integration of Spirit and Matter

The early Christians believed that heaven and earth had been joined together in the God-man. They also understood that new creation involved a progressive reintegration of the spiritual with the material. The intersection of the material and the spiritual was evident in the sacramental nature of early Christianity, with the central role of practices like baptism and the Eucharist.

The Christians believed that new creation was spreading from their communities throughout the physical world, which itself also awaited Christ’s return (Rom. 8:19-23). As miraculous healings occurred at the hands of the disciples (Acts 2:43; 19:11-12), this revived the Isaianic vision of a world where the curse was being reversed (Is. 35).

This intersection of heaven and earth did not occur in terms of a God who is separate from the world occasionally “intervening,” or working on the materials of creation from outside creation through a series of cause and effects. Rather, Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection brought a spiritual enlivening to the very structure of material creation so that nothing could ever be the same again.

  1. The Transformation of Culture

The implications of new creation were both cosmic and cultural. The latter can be seen in the way the apostles went around establishing communities marked out by new loyalties and characterized by counter-cultural values like faith and sacrificial love. This was an outworking of their belief that they had been called upon to continue Christ’s healing ministry by bringing the values of His kingdom into their families, communities and society. What did those values look like in practice? to answer this question, I can’t do better than to quote from N.T. Wright’s book The New Testament and the People of God:

“Christianity advocated a love which cut across racial boundaries. It sternly forbade sexual immorality, the exposure of children, and a great many other things which the pagan world took for granted.”[3]

One of the earliest exponents of cultural transformation was the Apostle Paul, who went to great lengths to describe how new creation is breaking into the present order and changing lives, and even whole villages. For example, Paul described new creation, not just in terms of personal salvation, but also in terms of the relationships that make up a community (wives-husbands, children-parents, masters-slaves, bishops-laity, etc.). New creation was clearly a communal endeavor, with implications for all of society.

This cultural dimension was possible because of the eschatological nature of Christian theology. Just as Christ’s resurrection in the middle of history pointed towards the resurrection of all God’s people at the end of history, so the establishment of transformed communities characterized by faith and love, acted as advanced signposts to God’s larger plan for renewing the entire earth. The prophetic vision of a future world in which all creation praises God (Ps 96 and 98), and in which Jew and Gentile join hands in worship (Zec 8), is a vision that comes rushing into the present through Christ, even as the church awaits the final fulfilment at the Second Coming.

The transformation of culture had a political dimension to it, which forms part of the context for early persecutions. Archeological and textual evidence from the 1st century shows a variety of appellations and phrases associated with Caesar and with the goals of the Roman state. What is interesting is that the New Testament writers take up many of these same categories but ascribe them to Jesus and the gospel. The Christians, like the Caesars, applied the language of euangelion (“gospel” or “glad tidings”) to their movement. The Christians, like the Caesars, taught that they held the answer for bringing justice, order and peace to the world (Luke 2:13-14; John 14:27). The Christians, like the Caesars, claimed that a single man had rightful dominion over the whole earth (Matt. 28:18). The Christians, like the Caesars, offered a sense of community to previously warring pluralities (Gal. 3:28). The Christians, like the Caesars, were intent on evangelizing the world (Matt. 28:19). But although the Christians shared many of Caesars’ goals, their methods couldn’t have been more distinct. Whereas the Caesars sought to transform the world through force and violence, the way of Christianity was to transform culture through love, peace, and the power of Christ’s resurrection life.

New Creation Under Attack

Not only did new creation theology counter certain political ideologies prevalent in the Roman Empire, but it also came head to head against many of the dominant philosophical trends popular throughout the Roman Empire. For example, many Romans were highly influenced by Plato’s philosophy, including an extreme spiritualism that despised material things.[4] Others were highly influenced by Epicureanism, and its teaching that the divine and the human occupy totally different spheres, without significant overlap. Still other philosophers were attracted to the Stoic tradition, and its teaching that God is not distinct from creation because everything is in some sense divine. All of these traditions could not countenance the notion of God that is distinct from creation breaking into the world and redeeming it. Most sophisticated thinkers agreed that a perfect and changeless God could not be associated with the corruption and mutability of the world.

Significantly, when Paul preached to the Epicureans and Stoics in Athens, it was after he mentioned resurrection that he came under particular ridicule (Acts 17: 32). Even within the church, the apostle encountered opposition, ranging from false teachers who denied the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:12-32), to others who were saying that the resurrection had already passed (2 Tim. 2:17-18).

Paul was not the only apostle to get push-back from preaching new creation. At the time St. John wrote his first epistle, some false teachers were proclaiming that Jesus had not actually come in the flesh (1 Jn. 4:1-3; 2 Jn. 7). The Apostle John associated this teaching, which later came to be known as Docetism, with the spirit of antichrist.

St. John’s successors, St. Polycarp (AD 69–155) and St. Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202 AD), continued to assert the goodness of creation and the hope of resurrection against a growing wellspring of opposition. Much of this opposition came from a family of heresies that has been retroactively labelled as “Gnosticism.”

Gnosticism’s Assault on New Creation

The doctrines of new creation were demanding, requiring a total rethinking of one’s priorities and goals. These doctrines were also subversive, bringing Jesus’ followers into conflict with prevailing political and philosophical trends. Gnosticism was an attempt to remove this sharp edge from Christian teaching, and to present a Christ that was more palatable within the philosophical and political climate of the first and second century. Gnosticism presented a more “politically correct” form of Christianity that existed in competition to the apostolic tradition.

In its varied forms, the Gnostics asserted that the material world is a result of a cosmic blunder, the product of an inferior deity. Accordingly, salvation does not involve liberation from sin and death, but escape from the inherently bad material world. Our goal, these teachers taught, is to attain to a spirituality liberated from the trappings of time, matter and space. To achieve such liberation, it is necessary to attain to a hidden, esoteric knowledge (‘Gnosis’ in Greek). In their retelling of gospel story, Jesus came from the world beyond to give this secret gnosis to the chosen few. This secret knowledge revealed the way to awaken the divine spark within, so the enlightened ones could escape from imprisonment to enjoy a disembodied eternity.

Since they believed the material world was the natural enemy of the spirit, and since they taught that Jesus came to show us how to escape from matter, the Gnostics were committed to a Christology of Docetism. Jesus only appeared to have a real physical body. Others taught that the immaterial Logos inhabited the body of an ordinary person, but then left the body before the crucifixion to escape the humiliation of death. In some versions of Gnosticism, such as the tradition reflected in the Gospel of Judas (not among the Nag Hammadi collection, but still reflective of the same tradition), Jesus did actually have a physical body, but He wished to reject the body since it bound him to this world. In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus gives Judas permission to betray Him in order that the spiritual person imprisoned within the body might be liberated through death. The Jesus of the Gospel of Judas is quoted as saying, “You will do more than all of them. For the man which clothes me, you will sacrifice him.”[5] In all its various forms, the humanity of Jesus was a problem the Gnostics sought to overcome.

Gnosticism became popular because it allowed its followers to retain their Christian faith without the demands of new creation theology. In emphasizing the unimportance of the present world, the Gnostics were able to avoid the types of confrontations with imperial powers that became characteristic of orthodox Christianity. Given the Gnostic understanding that God the Father (the divine, pure and wise God behind the capricious creator god) had no interest in putting right the material world, it followed that what happened on the earth was of little consequence. Thus, most of the Gnostics had little problem colluding with the ruling powers to escape persecution.[6] By teaching that what happens in this world is of little importance, and by circumscribing religion to the realm of one’s own spiritual interiority, the Gnostics expelled any perception of being a threat to the Roman Empire. Thus, while the early Christians were being thrown to the lions, many of the Gnostics “seemed intent precisely on pursuing a lessening of sociocultural tension between their religious movement and the larger social world.”[7] Significantly, therefore, the faithful men and women who were being thrown to the lions were not reading texts like The Gospel of Thomas or The Apocryphon of James, but Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Those who followed the Jesus of the alternative textual tradition believed in occupying themselves with ‘spiritual’ things, leaving the world to its own devices. This latter point, perhaps more than any other, served to polarize Gnosticism from both Christianity and Judaism.[8]

One particularly notorious Gnostic was a man named Valentinus. In the second century, Valentinus set up a school in Rome where he taught an elaborate system that separated God from creation by a series of devolving emanations. On this scheme of things, Jesus should not to be identified with the defective creator (a demigoddess named Sophia). The highest God (the one Jesus called Father) shows us how to escape from material things. Through his quick wit, charismatic personality, and diplomatic sagacity, Valentinus managed to create a movement within the church that extended to the boundaries of the Roman Empire. He was even almost elected pope, but lost by a few votes.

Valentinus’ strongest critic was the church father Irenaeus. Originally from Asian Minor, Ireaeus moved to Gaul (modern-day southern France) to take the bishopric of the late Bishop of Lugdunum (now Lyons), who was killed as a result of persecution. Concerned by the inroads that Valentinus’ teachings were making in the area, Irenaeus wrote a series of treatises to defend the authority of the apostolic church.

Among Irenaeus’ various concerns was to show that the whole human being, including our material body or “fleshly nature”, is part of the handiwork that was made in God’s image and redeemed by Christ.[9] Book 5 of Irenaeus’ magnum opus, Against Heresies, is an extended attack against the Gnostics for “not admitting the salvation of their flesh.”[10] Irenaeus countered this with a theological anthropology in which man is a unity of soul, spirit and body.[11] If Christ had not been a real human being with a soul, spirit and physical body, then He could not have redeemed us, for He can only redeem that which He assumed.

Because the Gnostics kept their teachings secret, they were not inclined to write them down. What writings did exist were not copied with the same diligence as generations copied the writings of the church fathers. Thus, throughout most of history, all we knew about the Gnostics was through church fathers who wrote to combat them. There was even uncertainty whether Irenaeus’ characterization of Gnosticism should be taken at face value, given that he clearly had an agenda.

That brings us back to the two brothers, and their remarkable discovery in December 1945.

The Strange Jesus of The Nag Hammadi Library

Twenty years after that fateful morning in 1945, the mysterious codices finally came to rest in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. Yet it would not be until 1977 that full facsimile editions of the texts were finally published. Gradually scholars began studying the texts, and they were amazed at what they found. This was a library of Gnostic writings, complete with 52 different treatises. The world of ancient Gnosticism, so long shrouded in mystery, was now accessible to the whole world.

One of the most fascinating texts in the Nag Hammadi collection was a work called The Gospel of Thomas. The writer of Thomas employed some of the same symbolism for resurrection as the canonical writers but reversed the images. “I will destroy this house, and no one will be able to rebuild it” says the Jesus of Thomas, in what is likely an allusion to the removal of His physical body.[12] Elsewhere Thomas echoes the imagery of 2 Corinthians 5:3 where clothing is used as a metaphor for physical resurrection. But while Paul assured his readers that “being clothed we shall not be found naked” (2 Cor. 5:3), the Jesus of Thomas tells his disciples, “When you disrobe without being ashamed and take up your garments and place them under your feet like little children and tread on them, then [you will see] the Son of the Living One…”[13] The context seems to make clear that the “garments” here represent the physical body that one should seek to be released from, trampling it underfoot as something abhorrent.[14]

This same idea runs like a thread through many of the other Nag Hammadi texts, which present the lower physical flesh as being in competition with the higher spiritual soul. In their subversion of the gospel narratives, Jesus is turned into a flesh-hating, world-despising guru.

See Also

As interest in the Nag Hammadi collection grew, so did various theories of Christian origins. One popular idea in the late twentieth-century, which still maintains some traction in popular circles, is that the Gnostics had been the true successors of Jesus’ teaching before being hushed up by the canonical church. Such theories actually lack a credible historic basis, since scholarship has shown the Nag Hammadi texts have a much later origin than the canonical gospels from which they were derivative.

But that doesn’t mean that Christians can afford to ignore Gnosticism. A much more unsettling question than that of origins, is whether Christians may unwittingly have colluded with the strange Jesus of the Nag Hammadi library without realizing it. Has Gnosticism, for so long obscured in the midst of time, assumed a new camouflage in many modern Christian assumptions? Do the descriptions of Jesus in Protestant evangelistic literature, Sunday school curriculums, popular Christian music, and funeral liturgies—remain faithful to the orthodox tradition, or do they wander unthinkingly towards the world-hating Jesus of the Nag Hammadi library?

Phillip Lee explored a similar set of questions in his 1987 book Against the Protestant Gnostics. “Is it possible,” the Canadian theologian asked, “that by identifying a gnostic thought pattern with those outside the Christian community, we have failed to locate it in its natural habitat?” He continued:

“Walter Bauer, in his work on early Christian heresy, points out that the gnostics were, for the most part, firmly ensconced within the churches. According to Bauer, it took centuries for Christians to arrive at an ‘orthodox’ position, to free themselves from an entangling alliance with gnostic thought.

…the familiar presence of Gnosticism is as close at hand as the reality we call Protestantism… something like the ancient misalliance has occurred in our own time, particularly in the North American expression of Protestantism…[15]

Is Philip Lee correct? Should we consider Gonsticism a relic of a bygone age, or a malaise that may have assumed new expression in our own time? That is a question I plan to address in successive articles in this series. In the next article in this series, I will explore one of Lee’s predecessors, who wrote at the same time as the Nag Hammadi texts were being discovered. Although this thinker died before the library was published, she knew enough about Gnosticism to see parallels between the ancient heresy and the Christianity of her day.

[1] The Second Temple period refers to the time from the rebuilding of Solomon’s temple in 516 BC to its destruction in AD 70.

[2] ?

[3] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1992), 360.

[4] In future articles in this series, we will consider if this is a correct way of reading Plato.

[5] Paul Foster, The Non-Canonical Gospels (London; New York: T & T Clark, 2008), 105.

[6] Helmut Richard Neibuhr, Christ and Culture (London: Faber & Faber, 1952), 87–88.

[7] Eric Osborn, Irenaeus of Lyons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 266.

[8] “…whereas most Jews in the two centuries on either side of the time of Jesus were emphasizing the kingdom of God coming on earth as in heaven, and the justice of God breaking in to history to make everything right, rescuing the created order from its plight of corruption and decay and giving to this people renewed (resurrection) bodies to live gloriously within this new world, vindicated after their suffering on his behalf, the Gnostics were teaching precisely the opposite. The true god whom they worshiped was, they believed, “completely removed from this transient world of pain and suffering created by a rebel and a fool.” N. T. Wright, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus (SPCK Publishing, 2006), 36.

[9] “Now God shall be glorified in His handiwork, fitting it so as to be conformable to, and modeled after, His own Son. For by the hands of the Father, that is, by the Son and the Holy Spirit, the human being, and not [merely] a part of the human being, was made in the likeness of God. Now the soul and the spirit are certainly a part of the human being, but certainly not the [whole] human being; for the perfect human being consists in the commingling and the union of the soul receiving the Spirit of the Father, and the admixture of that fleshly nature which was molded after the image of God.” Against Heresies Book 5, chapter 6. Cited in Ian Alexander McFarland, Creation and Humanity: The Sources of Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 97–98.


[11] Book 5 chapter 6

[12] “…granted the frequency of ‘temple’ as an image for the body – already in the Johannine version of the saying, where John says that Jesus was speaking of ‘the Temple of his body’ – it could well be that the saying is intended, at least at one level, to mean that Jesus will remove the physical body from the initiate and will not replace it. This would then be an explicit denial of bodily resurrection.” N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2003), 536.

[13] The Gospel of Thomas, saying 37, in Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It into the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2003), 23.

[14] See Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 535.

[15] Philip J. Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 1987).

Further Reading

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