Jesus & the Minimum Wage

In our last post, we looked forward to what may be the become the pivotal domestic question of the upcoming 2016 election: What do we do to fix income inequality?

In these early months of 2015, there is growing evidence that job growth is finally beginning to be accompanied by wage gains, as well. This raises the question: Is wage growth the savior to remedy income inequality?

Increasing the size of the pie would seem to provide a pivotal solution: everyone now can get a bigger piece. But what happens if the larger pie is distributed even more in the direction of those who already have the largest slices?

An Alternative View

Our view is that growing the pie is an integral part of the answer – but likely does not go all the way to fixing the still widening gap between the haves and have-nots globally – especially in the U.S.A. Is is time to pay attention not only to the overall size of the economic pie – but also to the size of the slice each of us gets? Maybe so.

Two suggestions for consideration:

1. Nurture resurgent economic growth – of the right kind. The right kind of growth is that which puts more after tax dollars back in the hands of every American – with mid-to-lower income workers getting a getting a larger (not smaller) share of the economic pie. And which increases the productive capacity of the U.S. economy to support a better quality of life for rich, poor, and middle class.

2. Increase the minimum wage – by a lot. Based on American productivity gains, a fair share compensation to minimum wage workers would be in the range of $18-$19 per hour – an approximate $11 per hour gain above the current federal minimum.  Make the adjustment in bite-sized increments over the next 11 years – as a $1 increase each year. In the 12th year, make an adjustment for CPI changes that have accrued over the prior 11 years to reach full parity.

A Bit of Background

As a first take, this might seem like a jaw-dropping flight of fancy. But consider the stats.

To get back to where America was in the 1960s (in terms of buying power), the U.S. Department of Labor has estimated that the minimum wage today would need to be about $11 per hour – more than 50 % above the current federal minimum of $7.25.

The Obama Administration has proposed gradually increasing the current federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has estimated that 16.7 million American workers would be directly benefited by the Obama-proposed increase. Nearly 28 million would be directly and indirectly affected as a result of the ripple effect, also benefiting workers currently paid at just above minimum wage.

While a new floor of $11 per hour is certainly justified (much less $10.10) in terms of changed purchasing power, an even higher wage gain is supportable if wages are to fully reflect productivity gains in the U.S. economy since 1968 – the peak year to date for minimum wage purchasing power. In effect, productivity growth since then could support as much as an $11 per hour gain – to about $18.25 per hour.

A Proposal for Conservatives?

There is great debate about whether or to what extent a higher wage minimum might result in fewer jobs for entry-level and unskilled workers. More than doubling the minimum wage would undoubtedly spur greater labor-saving productivity enhancements while also bringing workers sidelined by unemployment, welfare and early retirement back into the labor market.

Replacing U.S. human capital with out-sourced, computer and robotic equivalents already represents a seemingly unstoppable driving market force. Aggressively increasing the wage minimum merely accelerates the time frame for this unavoidable day of reckoning.

As a global community, it is time to address the value of a human touch vis-a-vis an impersonal, robotized future. A new order of low-wage leisure versus productive endeavor. This is the type of values discussion that should productively engage both liberals and conservatives – as well as those in-between.

There also is an upside that those of a more conservative persuasion might embrace. Outcomes like greater buying power from more consumers with disposable income (with greater marginal propensity to consume, as well).  Reduced dependence on public assistance, greater incentive for workforce skills upgrading, for civil conduct, and for bolstering the great American Puritan work ethic.

So, What Would Jesus Say?

The frustrating thing about Jesus is that he does not come across as an economic ideologue. Not a feudalist or socialist.  Nor an advocate for either market or state capitalism. This is a man who values human and kingdom outcomes above philosophical principles. A friend of rich and poor alike – of haves and have-nots.

Second only to his command to love God is the imperative to love your neighbor as yourself. And then there is Jesus’ observation that the laborer is worthy of his (or her) wages.

Global or Kingdom Economics?

Even if proposals for increasing the minimum wage made no economic sense (a proposition with which we do not agree), would there still be a higher and greater calling for proceeding? Does a fair and living wage for all workers make sense even if American or global GDP were to temporarily suffer?

In short, is this a case where the economy of God’s kingdom trumps global economics? Maybe so.


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WWJD: Election 2016 & Income Inequality?

With his State of the Union address, President Obama is aiming to set the stage for what may become the pivotal domestic question of the upcoming 2016 election: What do we do to fix income inequality?

And our slant on this question is that of the master of two millennia past, in short: What would Jesus do?

To answer this we need to address: a) the nature of the U.S. economic disparity today; b) the socioeconomic context of the Galilean and Judean economy of Jesus’ day; and c) Jesus’ views as to the nature of both the problem and the solution.

U.S. Economic Disparity

We begin with a simple premise, followed by a question and then a suggested framework for response.

The premise: U.S. economic inequality – the spread between the haves and the have nots – has increased every decade since the mid-1970s. Most noticeably, wages have declined in terms of consumer purchasing power, with no clear recovery yet in view.

Bottom line, the haves are taking more with the have nots getting even less. Even those formerly considered as middle class are having trouble staying in the game.

The question: Does this matter?

Framing a response: We suggest consideration of a Christian approach – framed by yet another question: WWJD – What would Jesus do?

Framing the answer begins with consideration of what reasonably can be gleaned about the Galilean economy of Jesus day – followed by a brief presentation of Jesus views and then translation to the U.S. socioeconomic landscape of 2015.

The Economy of Jesus’ Day

There is considerable debate about whether the Galilee of Jesus’ day was impoverished, prosperous, or somewhere in-between. Was there a big gap between the wealthy elites (Roman or Jewish) and the workers? Or was there a semblance of what we today would call middle class? The evidence:

  • After being essentially depopulated after the Assyrian conquest in 722 BC, the Galileee was subsequently repopulated largely by transplanted Judeans under the Maccabees starting about the 1st century BC – essentially a forerunner of modern era Israeli kibbutzim.
  • Under Herod Antipas (the provincial ruler through most of Jesus’ life), the economy of the Galilee grew rapidly after years of neglect in the reign of Herod the Great.
  • The economy of the Galilee flourished around such industries as fishing, olive oil and wine production, and also livestock grazing – all involving producers, merchants and traders as the “middle class” of the day.
  • Unlike Judea and Jerusalem, the Galilee also benefited economically by location on major trade routes between the Mediterranean and inland via Damascus.
  • And while the Jewish historian Josephus perhaps exaggerates, the Galilee of Jesus’ day had over 200 villages with a total population reportedly of up to 3 million.
  • Jewish settlers tended to locate in the more isolated agricultural and small village communities; the larger cities (including Galilean capitols at Sepphoris and then Tiberias) had a greater representation of Herodian, Roman and other Gentile presence.

In short, while the experience of the 1st century AD clearly suggests social and cultural stratification, there is also evidence of general economic prosperity, filtering down to include the less than politically well-connected. This view is further reinforced by the interactions of Jesus with all economic strata – from wealthy landowners to entrepreneurial types to laborers and the dispossessed.

Jesus’ Views

We now turn from historical context to more explicit consideration of Jesus views regarding matters of business, money, and economic inequality. Some quick hits:

  • The master clearly understood and empathized with the plight of those of limited or no means – attested perhaps best by his advice to a rich young man that the path to heaven involved sale of all he had, with distribution of the proceeds to the poor.
  • At the same time, Jesus is a realist – acknowledging that there will always be poverty and poor people in this earthly realm.
  • He urges individual responsibility – whether in telling the cripple to pick up his mat and walk, the physician to heal himself, or the note that the “workman is worthy of his meat.”
  • Despite popular rhetoric, he is a friend to rich as well as poor – think Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea, unseemly rich tax collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus, and the coterie of well-to-do women who fund his ministry travels.
  • He is known to counsel fiscal restraint, with advice to “count the cost” before engaging in such endeavors as building a tower or going to war
  • And Jesus believes in paying everyone from the tax collector to the temple to himself evidenced by the statement to: “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, give to God the things that are God’s, and give me what’s mine” (with italicized add-on from the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas).

Fast Forward to 2015

So, looking at today’s issue of a smaller group of haves controlling more and the have nots (including those who once were middle class) controlling ever fewer resources, we come back to the question: What would Jesus do?

Unfortunately, Jesus is no policy wonk – whether on matters of doctrine or economics. There is no detailed campaign platform or legislative proposal to reference.

Instead, Jesus paints a big picture in bold but broad strokes. If he were here in earthly form again today, I suspect he would understand but critique the positions of both political parties:

  • Republicans would be chastized for ignoring or downplaying the sins of wealthy elites prospering on the backs of everyone else – for portraying reduced incomes as indicative solely of individual failure (essentially social Darwinism).
  • Democrats would be mocked for their ineffectiveness – even for offering cures that may be worse than the disease (including failure to reward individual initiative).

The Bottom Line

For Jesus, the bottom line is not a detailed policy prescription – that’s the job of us humans. Rather its about a set of principles to guide human action. Principles for framing policies that incent:

  • Work and wealth
  • Living wage jobs for those who can work and an effective safety net for those who can’t
  • Fair share requiring all to have skin in the game but with those able to bear more paying more
  • Seamless,efficient and customer-friendly administration

As always, the devil is in the details; God’s interest is in successful outcomes.

Jesus was known to refer to Antipas, the political ruler of his day, as “that fox.” Right now, there is a clear sense of the President and his Republican adversaries in the House and Senate slyly eyeing each other – waiting for their moment to pounce. Rather than slinking about, let’s hope (and pray) for some real business to get done between now and 2016.


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Faith vs Works: Not Either-Or but Both-And…

Does a ticket to the hereafter come by faith – a belief in God the Father and Jesus the Son? Or by works – doing the will of God?

In the first century AD, the apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians that we humans are “justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law.” Centuries later, Paul’s letter captured the fancy of a priestly Martin Luther who would declare that we are justified by “faith alone.”

None other than James (the brother of Jesus) countered Paul with the pointed observation that “faith without works is dead.” In the fourth century, Augustine taught that faith alone does not save. Rather, Catholic doctrine down through the centuries has been that faith must be accompanied works of love.

Who is right?
Paul or James?
Protestant reformers or the Roman Catholic church?

Faith or works?
Simple belief or adherence to the works of the law?

In this blog, we present the case that setting faith against works represents a false dichotomy. Rather than requiring an answer of either faith or works, the answer is both-and. In other words, the pathway to heaven depends on both faith and works – working hand-in-hand.

Consider our outline of the case … as follows.

What Would Jesus Say?

It is odd that much of the focus in this debate is on the views of apostolic leaders of an emergent church rather than on the one whose opinion really matters – Jesus of Nazareth. What would Jesus say?

Actually, what did Jesus say?

If one relies primarily on the Gospel of John, Paul wins. After all, perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible is where Jesus says “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

And to a crowd, Jesus proclaims: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

The gospels of Matthew and Luke offer a different perspective.

Matthew records Jesus at his most pungent:

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’

Matthew also records the response of Jesus to the rich man’s question: how to get eternal life? And it’s not about faith but works as Jesus directs the rich man to: “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Like Matthew, Luke’s Jesus preaches to “love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High …”

Mark’s gospel is more equivocal; Mark can be found on both sides of the fence.

During the passion week, Mark’s Jesus compliments a scribe who echoes the importance to “love one’s neighbor as oneself.” Jesus comments: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Like fellow synoptics Matthew and Luke, here Mark appears to opt for the works side of the equation.

But Mark also offers echoes of John’s gospel as when Mark quotes Jesus offering that: “All things can be done for the one who believes.”

And longer (canonical but disputed) ending to Mark’s gospel outlines a more succinct path to salvation: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.”

By comparison, Matthew’s version of the Great Commission talks not about belief but the imperative to “make disciples.” And Luke’s version is that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations.” Again, no mention of the importance of faith or belief, but rather the act of repentance. 

Who’s on First?

Is the path to salvation, to eternal life, to a heavenly reward via faith or works? Which comes first?

The answer is neither and both.

The answer is not to be found only from Paul or James but from the direct words of Jesus.

Salvation is not by faith alone nor is it by works alone. Salvation depends on both faith and works – as inextricably linked.

Sometimes the works come first, as James notes for Rahab the harlot who was “justified by works” when she hid and abetted the escape of Israeli spies in Jericho.  And Rahab is rewarded not only with her life but as a direct ancestor of Jesus (as would be recorded by the genealogy of Matthew).

Sometimes faith may comes first, as Paul suggests for Abraham, noting Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”

And sometimes, there are contending answers. While Paul contends that Abraham was justified by faith. James says it was by works and, in the end, “that by works faith was made perfect.”

Salvation, life after death with the creator. What gets us in the door? Faith and works – they’re inseparable,  two sides of the same coin.

Faith, then works. Or works, then faith. In God’s kingdom, it’s that opposites attract. Faith with works – from now to the end of the age.


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Inspiration vs. Inerrancy – An Addendum

In our two most recent blogs, we have argued for the view that the Bible should be viewed for what it says it is: inspired, not inerrant.

This blog takes a different turn, almost whimsical. But with clear warning signs for church orthodoxy.

We consider four seemingly disconnected observations about Matthew’s gospel and the ensuing aftermath. Taken together, the observations lead to an alternative hypothesis as to how the synoptic gospels came into being – and what that means.

All circumstantial evidence – as yet no smoking gun. But follow the trail with us – as we reveal the pieces of this patchwork quilt. Four themes:

1) The Gospel writer Matthew’s insistence on reinterpreting and distorting Old Testament prophecy to justify New Testament outcomes.

As we have noted in a prior blog, Matthew’s distorting effect is most blatantly evident in Matthew’s quotation of a Greek (Septuagint) translation of Isaiah prophesying that: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive.” The Hebrew Scripture actually says that a “young woman” (who may or may not be a virgin) shall conceive.

In effect, the Matthew available to us today has twisted what the Old Testament prophet said to support the claim that Jesus’ mother was a virgin. This apparent error in biblical translation was pointed out as early as the second century AD by the Christian theologian Justin Martyr.

If the author of Matthew’s gospel was really a Jewish tax collector hand-picked by Jesus, why would he have chosen to use the Greek term parthenos (meaning virgin) rather than the original Hebrew of almah (meaning young maiden – virginal or otherwise)?

The storyline of Matthew – of Hebrew prophecy fulfilled – is interwoven throughout this gospel as we have it today. However, in this gospel Old Testament prophecies that clearly were made for different purposes when written are force fit by the author of Matthew’s gospel onto the life and purpose of Jesus the Messiah. Three examples:

Michelangelo portrays St. Matthew as breaking free to write what church patriarchs describe as the first gospel written -- known down through the ages as "the greatest story ever told."  Free to portray Jesus the Christ "as is?" Or with liberty to also spin his gospel as "prophecy fulfilled?"

Michelangelo portrays St. Matthew as breaking free to write what church patriarchs describe as the first gospel written — known down through the ages as “the greatest story ever told.”
Free to portray Jesus the Christ “as is?” Or with liberty to also spin his gospel as “prophecy fulfilled?”

  • Matthew refers to statements in Samuel and Micah that a ruler of Judah will emerge from Bethlehem. The original citation in Samuel is that of a forerunner to the kingship of David, not Jesus.
  • In describing Herod’s massacre of the young males of Bethlehem, Matthew’s gospel recalls Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” However, Ramah is north of Jerusalem; Bethlehem is south. Jeremiah is writing of the exile of the Northern tribes of Israel to Babylon. Ramah was the point of deportation, with those too frail to make the trip executed in Ramah.
  • In apparent remorse for betraying Jesus, Judas returns the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests. The priests use the money to buy a potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. This is reported as the fulfillment of a prophecy made by Jeremiah: “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.” Matthew’s gospel is mistaken; there is no such verse in Jeremiah. Rather, his quote appears to be a very loose paraphrase of a verse in Zechariah.

Enough of Matthean misinterpretation for now! Let’s move on to the second scrap in our patchwork quilt.

2) The insistence of early 2nd century church patriarch Papias that Matthew was the first gospel to be written.

 The traditional view has been that the gospels were written in the order presented in the New Testament: Matthew, then Mark, Luke and John. This view has been largely supplanted by modern scholars (both liberals and conservatives) who contend that Mark was written first, then Matthew and Luke followed using Mark together with a non-extant “Q” set of Jesus sayings for their gospels.

But go back to those recorded voices closest to the source. Papias is quoted as saying that: “Matthew organized the sayings in the Hebrew language, but everyone has translated them as best he could.” The eminent third century theologian Origen also states that Matthew was written in Aramaic for a Jewish audience.

The mystery deepens: If Matthew knew and even wrote in Hebrew (or Aramaic), how could he have mistaken virgin for maiden? He should have defaulted to the Hebrew almah. Did this mistake occur by sheer accident, as a purposeful sleight of hand by Matthew the tax man, or as the intentional work of a post-Matthean redactor?

But before answering, let’s move on – to observation #3.

3) Clear tampering with the letters of Ignatius to support a proto-Trinitarian theology and submission to the rule of Church authority.

A contemporary of Papias was the late 1st century bishop Ignatius of Antioch. On his way to martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius writes letters to a number of churches with which he was familiar – ostensibly to encourage them in the face of persecution.

What is interesting about Ignatius is that there are varied extant versions of his letters to churches in Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, and Smyrna. And what are the chief differences between the varied versions about? Two items: a) the divinity of Christ, and b) need for submission to Church hierarchy. All versions of the letters provide evidence of this bent by Ignatius. It’s just that some of the (later?) copyists appear to have amped up the rhetoric – conveniently in support of what would subsequently become official Catholic doctrine.

4) The 20th century suggestion by the pastor of Jerusalem’s Narkis Street Baptist Church that the correct dependency of the gospels begins with an early proto-narrative document (no longer extant) followed by Luke, then Mark, then Matthew.

In 1971, pastor Robert Lisle Lindsey published a pamphlet titled A New Approach to the Synoptic Gospels making a claim previously not conceived by others. Among nearly a dozen observations made in support of this thesis he offers two points of most relevance for this discussion:

  • The observation that Mathew closely matches the pericope (or story) order provided by Mark, but that Matthew also uses the same written source material known to Luke in making minor corrections to Mark’s highly tampered text, especially with direct copying of non-Markan parallels found in Luke.
  • The “remarkable fact” that almost the entire text of Luke’s gospel can be translated word-for-word back to the idiomatic Hebrew (or Aramaic). Mark’s terminology (much of which is used by Matthew) is not easily matched with the Hebrew at all. Surprisingly, Matthew deviates more from the Aramaic than Luke – with the most notable exceptions being those non-Markan parallels that closely match to Luke.

What to make of these four seemingly random observations?

Mr. Lindsey (now deceased) got close – but not quite all the way. We suggest a new hypothesis as to how the early synoptic gospels may have came into being, in something of the following order:

  • Begin with a proto-Matthew (perhaps authored by the real Matthew) written in Hebrew or Aramaic as stated by early church patriarchs – and largely devoid of many of the prophetic fulfillments unique to the Matthean gospel that we have today.
  • Move to the fast-paced, largely parable free account by Mark – the guy who enjoyed changing words just for the heck of it (or to do his own thing).
  • Now proceed to Luke written as a combination document but highly reliant on the Hebrew text of the Aramaic proto-Matthew but also on the story order of the paraphrasing Mark. Luke did his due diligence, looking to multiple sources as he wrote in the introduction of his gospel account to a certain Theophilus: “I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first (meaning multiple accounts), to write an orderly account for you … so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”
  • End with the subsequent copyist revisions to Matthew, creating the current text which satisfies the integration of Luke and Mark while also incorporating repeated statements to reinforce the concept of Jesus as fulfillment of prophecy – much as the revisons to the letters of Ignatius served to reinforce emerging church orthodoxy. When did this happen? Well, we don’t have a relatively complete text of the New Testament (still extant today) until the early 4th century – about the time that Emperor Constantine converted and then made Christianity the new state religion.

How are all these twists and turns of significance to Christians of the 21st century? For starters, if this hypothesis is anywhere close to the mark, it clearly would serve to further debunk the claim to biblical inerrancy. Rather than treat the gospels as, well, gospel, we are instead faced with a living, ever changing narrative of Jesus as Savior and expositor of the kingdom of God.

Inspiring? Yes, but only as we interpret scripture in the light of historic authenticity coupled with the ever wily breath of the Spirit – all played out uniquely in the lives and communities inhabited by each follower of the kingdom around and before us.

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The Bible: Inspired or Inerrant? (Part 2)

Our last blog took on the question: Is the Bible to be viewed as a book that is inspired by God but with possible errors? Or is it inerrant?

The answer was: The Bible itself claims to be inspired, but lays no claim to inerrancy.

Part 1 of our blog was aimed to refute the case for inerrancy on the basis of inductive reasoning – arguing from the available biblical evidence to reach an empirically supportable conclusion.

With Part 2 we take on two additional questions:

  • Is the case for inerrancy any stronger if one argues from the logic of deductive rather than inductive reasoning?
  • And we address a more fundamental question: Why Does God Prefer Inspiration over Inerrancy?

Let’s take on these questions – one at a time.

The Deductive Approach

In our last blog, we took an inductive approach – arguing from the evidence of scripture that the Bible is to be understood as inspired but not necessarily inerrant.

In this blog, we take pursue the question from the alternative deductive line of reasoning that has employed by many inerrantists. Independent of the evidence of scripture, the logic of this approach is proposed something like this: a) the Bible is the Word of God; and b) God can not lie. Therefore the conclusion: c) Scripture must be wholly true.

Let’s take on these assertions – in the order presented:

  • The Bible is the Word of God. While seemingly innocent on its face, this assertion goes beyond what the Bible itself asserts. The Bible may be evidence of the Word of God. However, this document as received is not necessarily the one and only authoritative source of God’s word. And in some places, the Bible clearly reads as the recording of human opinions, with no clear divine authentication.
    Are there other sources of the Word of God? Yes, the answer is readily apparent from even a casual reading of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures (Old and New Testaments).  We know that God revealed himself and talked directly with Adam and Eve. With Moses, Abraham, countless prophets, Jesus and the apostles of the New Testament.
    Is every word that God ever uttered expressed in the recorded scriptural narrative? Of course not. There are accounts, what the apostle Paul describes as a “a secret and hidden wisdom of God” made available in some cases collectively, in others individually. And writing to the churches of Galatia, Paul further declares that “the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” This is direct personal revelation, some of which makes its way into preserved written documentation, some of which does not.
    Bottom line: The Bible is evidence of the Word of God – but not necessarily the sole evidence.
  • God can not lie.  This is trickier ground. Like beauty, truth is often in the eye of the beholder.
    The God-head may not lie, but may omit crucial details that at some point become pivotal to understanding the whole truth. Case in point: Jesus is recorded multiple times as requesting that those he heals not tell everyone, but rather “ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.” The Son of God time and again wanted to wait to divulge his true mission and divine power until the time had come; avoid or dance around the issue till then.
    And is it lying to say one thing and then do another? As Yahweh so often did when confronted by the Patriarchs of the Hebrew scriptures. For example, the Lord threatens to wipe out (or “consume”) the Israelites of the Exodus due to their creation of a golden calf to worship. Moses argues for leniency. And so the author of this remarkable saga explains that “ the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”
    Does God lie? Hard to know. But we do know that he feels free to omit details for a later, better time and to change his mind when challenged. Are these forms of lying? What would you say when this happens in your own life? You decide.

The conclusion offered through this deductive line of reasoning is that if the Bible is the Word of God and if God cannot lie, then scripture must be wholly true. The problem is that if either (or both) of the premises are faulty, then so is the conclusion.

The Bible is a major part but not the sole evidence of the Word of God. And if God does not lie, he will nonetheless evade the truth or reverse course on oral commitments when convenient. Consequently, the case that the scripture must be wholly true 100% of the time falls apart.

Scripture reveals but can also evade truth – at least temporarily. Scripture may also obscure truth – as with the parables of Jesus. And scripture can change its mind – suggesting one thing and doing another. Sometimes challenging us – as readers – to reach our own conclusions. Whether due to the imperfect recollections of humans or the preversely human character of the divine (after all, we are made in his image), scripture gets us part of the way but not necessarily the whole way there. For the rest, we rely on our wits or, better, on the day-to-day walk and talk with our creator.

So, Why Does God Prefer Inspiration Over Inerrancy?

Getting this question right is pivotal to our understanding of the divine and our place in this universe. On the 6th day of creation, the God-head gathered and said: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” And so, at the end of this fateful day, God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was not just good, but “it was very good.”

In this divine image, we humans were created with:

  • The independent spirit or free will of God.
  • An experiential (and experimental) nature.
  • God’s capacity for love and anger.
  • A lust for life – and companionship.
  • The opportunity to choose one path, then change course and choose another.
  • A God-given ability to forgive and, in some cases, forget.

Like the iconic watchmaker, God could have wound up our clock, then let the parts play themselves out in mechanical, predetermined fashion. Yet he took a more experimental role – intervening at times in human affairs, staying away at others, and at yet other times letting nature (or human willfulness) take its course.

As the ultimate (perhaps non-scientific) experiment, we find a God who at times deals in the realm of certainty, at other times in the realms of probability, and yet at others with random chance. As with any stochastic process, there is a wide margin of error.

For God and for his creation, this world is error-prone. He did not dictate every move, nor write every word that came into the heads of the writers of scripture. As Paul says to Timothy, the scripture is “inspired.” Paul never says that scripture is inerrant.

Inspired like Mark Twain’s saga of Huckleberry Finn. Or Dante’s Inferno. Or the multiple dramas and comedies of a William Shakespeare.

This scripture is inspired, God-breathed. It’s what Jesus describes to the Jewish leader Nicodemus in describing the role of the Holy Spirit, when he says: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Like the Spirit, the scripture is often ambivalent, multi-directional. Prone to misinterpretation, but with opportunity for self-correction over time. After all, more than half of the time elapsed since Jesus’ sojourn on earth was accompanied by a corrupted Church that was overly reliant on “good works” (often purchased), until redeemed by Martin Luther just 500 years ago.

God was patient, allowing time to take its course and re-center on the question of: what new lessons should we draw from scripture – relevant to our experience today?

But even as a Martin Luther steered us back to scripture on the question of faith and good works, he may well have missed the boat when it came to questions such as church authority and racial prejudice. And so we come back to Scripture, not without error, but to inspire the next generation.

As always, God remains incredibly patient but unable to resist dabbling now and then – whether with a gentle wind or heavy storm – to encourage rediscovery of those spiritual gems we missed before.


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The Bible: Inspired or Inerrant (Part 1)

So, is the Bible to be viewed as a book that is inspired by God but with possible errors? Or is it inerrant?

The simple answer is: inspired but not inerrant.

The number one reason is simply this: The Bible itself claims to be inspired, but lays no claim to inerrancy.

The terms “inerrant” and “inerrancy” are nowhere to be found in either the Old or New Testament. A related term often cited by inerrantists is “infallible,” used only once (and only in the King James) in the context of Jesus demonstrating his resurrection “by many infallible proofs” during the 40 days after his resurrection. These infallible truths were related to the evidence of his being alive, with no bearing on the much different question of scriptural authenticity.

Creedal statements regarding the role and place of scripture have changed over time. In early church creeds, scripture was given scant attention (in part because a written New Testament was still coming into being). By the time of the Westminster Confession, there is clear affirmation of the inspirational (or God-breathed) role of scripture but, as yet, no statement of inerrancy. By the time we get to a confession like the current 2000 statement of faith of the Southern Baptist Convention, we see a clear enunciation of the idea that the Bible provides no “mixture of error.”

Today, inerrancy generally reflects a viewpoint to the effect that the Bible is “without error or fault in all its teaching.” Or at a minimum, that “Scripture in its original manuscripts (whether those manuscripts are available or not) would not and could not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.

Infallibility has come to be defined with a somewhat lesser standard that what the scriptures say regarding matters of faith and Christian practice are wholly useful and true. However, passages providing historical or scientific details, which may be irrelevant to matters of faith and Christian practice, may contain errors.

 Sample Confessions:

Nicene Creed (325 and as revised in 381): There is no direct mention of the role of scripture, authenticity, or authority except for 381 citation with Council of Constantinople that: “On the third day he (the Son) rose again in accordance with the Scriptures …”

Westminster Confession (1646): “Under the name of holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the Books of the Old and New Testament, which are these: … (names of books) … All which are given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life… The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or Church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God. …The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”

Southern Baptist Convention (2000): “The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.”

Although “inerrancy” is never attested to by the Bible, the concept of “inspiration” is vouched for by scripture, most directly by the Second Epistle to Timothy. As the reputed writer of this epistle, the apostle Paul declares that:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (NRSV)

There remains the bigger question of: What is scripture? (More on this in a moment).

Remarkably, the authenticity of Paul’s writings are vouched for by none other than Peter – the disciple about which Paul once wrote (to a church in Galatia) that he (Paul) “opposed him (Peter) to his face.” In the last paragraph of the second letter attributed to this initial leader of the post-resurrection church, the writer generally identified as Peter writes that:

… our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.

This is a remarkable passage because Peter: a) acknowledges Paul’s other multiple letters; b) puts these letters in the category of the “other scriptures” which at the time consisted of only the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament; and c) at the same time declares Paul’s writings as “hard to understand” and easily prone to misinterpretation.

All scripture is "given by inspiration"  (as quoted from the NKJV translated letter of the apostle Paul to his disciple Timothy).  But what does inspiration mean?  Nothing more and nothing less than "God breathed."

All scripture is “given by inspiration”
(as quoted from the NKJV translated letter of the apostle Paul to his disciple Timothy).
But what does inspiration mean?
Nothing more and nothing less than “God breathed.”

Supporters of inerrancy also point to the statement of Jesus as recorded in Mark’s gospel (and Luke) that “till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”

A jot is the English translation of “iota,” the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet. A tittle is even smaller, much as the dot over the letter “i.” So, Jesus is in effect saying that the full law is to be fulfilled. This is not the same as saying that all of the Bible will be fulfilled or even that it is necessarily accurate.

In short, inspiration is scriptural, inerrancy is not.

But let’s go on and briefly explore some specific issues with the theological (not scriptural) concept of inerrancy. This following listing is meant to be indicative, not exhaustive:

Literal or Metaphor?

The claims of inerrancy are reduced to the absurd when portions of the Bible best understood as metaphorical or allegorical are claimed as both literal and inerrant. This is best illustrated by the 7-day creation account of Genesis 1. While not intended as an explanation of the physics and bio-chemistry of the universe, the biblical account nonetheless does a good job of laying out the functions that the God of the universe had in mind for this great creation experiment – involving the shaping of reasoning beings in God’s own image, yet capable of exercising independent will and free choice.

In what may or may not be sequential order, the God of Genesis distinguishes light from darkness, separates the waters above and on earth, creates dry land and vegetation, identifies sun and moon as dominant influences on the cycles of this globe, creates animals to populate the waters, land and sky, puts in place His ultimate experiment with humankind, then calls it good and rests.

The human species of Moses’ day had vastly less knowledge of the science (or how) of this creation than we of the 21st century. Humans of the next 100 years likely will know vastly more than we do today. So, for an account that offers timeless value, don’t expect science but rather the purpose that drives the science. And that’s what the Bible offers.

Prophetic Fulfillment

Some of the New Testament writers appear overeager to show Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. This is particularly the case with the gospel of Matthew, as in quoting the prophet Isaiah saying: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”

  • Matthew’s first citation best illustrates the far-reaching (if not heretical) consequences of this over-reach – and the resulting insult to those steeped in the traditions of Judaism. This is because the virgin described by Isaiah is not necessarily a virgin, but simply an unmarried young woman.
  • Not surprisingly, there is some dispute as to whom or what the “young woman” of Isaiah 7:14 is referring. Some commentators suggest that this refers to the mother of the second son of King Ahaz of Judah, some to a young woman to whom Isaiah was betrothed and who would become Isaiah’s second wife. Yet others suggest that the woman is intended to be a foreshadowing of the virgin Mary – even though the situation at hand with Isaiah has nothing to with a future woman who has yet to experience intercourse. In any event, this original prophecy comes in the context of the prophet Isaiah delivering a message to King Ahaz about his future in the midst of enemies from Israel and Aram.
  • Matthew’s misquotation of Isaiah comes as the result of a mis-translation of the Old Testament from the original Hebrew to the Greek Septuagint (in about the third century BC). While Matthew cites correctly from what he reads of the Septuagint, in the process this author misrepresents the words and the meaning of the original Hebrew.

The Greek term used by Matthew and the Septuagint translation of Isaiah is parthenos, meaning a virgin. However, the word from the original Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 is almah, more appropriately translated as maiden, young woman or unmarried woman.

Jesus may well have been born of a virgin. This would be a small matter for the creator of the universe to accomplish. However, the Bible’s lead-off gospel tries to make the assertion with a claim that, at best, reflects a misunderstanding of Hebrew or Greek terminology. Or worse, an intentional fabrication.

Manuscript Tampering

Here the trail gets a bit murky. We all know of disputes over where was Jesus and when was he there. Which event came first, then second, etc.?

The focus here is more on substantive differences between different gospel writers, where there may be evidence of tampering with the New Testament scriptures over time. A few notable examples:

  • The earliest known conclusion to the last chapter of Mark’s gospel ends with the women at the tomb, hearing from an angel, who then promptly “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The subsequently added conclusion to the gospel doesn’t leave the reader hanging, but softens the conclusion to coincide with other gospels – now including the Great Commission and Jesus’ ascension to heaven. But the added conclusion is not part of the earliest known manuscripts of this gospel.
  • There is a similar potential issue with the last chapter of John’s gospel which appears to add a new epilogue.
  • What is perhaps the signature story of John’s gospel is not included in the earliest known manuscripts of the New Testament. This is the story of the lynching of a woman adultress that Jesus averted by commanding “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” This story is a personal favorite because of what is so powerfully conveyed of divine acceptance coupled with a frank look at first century gender issues. While not in the earliest manuscripts, I’d be inclined to (perhaps hypocritically) give it a pass anyway.
  • A final example is provided by a phrase inserted the first epistle of John apparently by the Catholic theologian Erasmus in his 1552 edition of the Greek New Testament identifying the Father, Son and Holy Ghost as “three in one.” Other than this passage (also found in the King James but which most more recent biblical translations have now removed), there is no other clear, succinct biblical statement in support of this Trinitarian concept.

Conflicting Theology

In some cases, there is no evidence of manuscript tampering yet different gospel writers appear to reach radically different theological conclusions. In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s rendition begins with the beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit”. Luke’s so-called Sermon on the Plain begins with: “Blessed are the poor” (with no mention of spirit).

The meaning of the two sayings is entirely different. As is the case throughout Luke’s gospel, social justice takes front seat. For Matthew, it’s all about individual responsibility. Did Jesus say different things to different audiences – much like a political stump candidate flavoring his message a bit differently in one town than another? Or should one ideology trump the other? Depending on your choice of gospel, the answer can be quite different.

Conflicting Facts

… that Lead to Conflicting Theology. A remarkable factual conflict with added theological implications appears in the recounting of Jesus’ appearance(s) before Roman governor Pontius Pilate. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark (here recounted by Mark):

“Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He (Jesus) answered him (Pilate), “You say so.” Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” 5 But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.”

The accounts of Matthew and Luke are similar to what Mark has to say (above).

John’s rendition is different. He starts by asking the same question as is recorded by Mark and Luke:

“Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus answers the question posed by the Roman procurator in just three words. He then goes silent through the rest of the trial. In answering Pilate, John’s Jesus does just the opposite. He gives a detailed response, even putting Pilate in his place as being a lesser ruler of only an earthly rather than heavenly kingdom.

The difference is that the Jesus of these three synoptics goes humbly to the cross, evidencing no remaining affinity to this earth. In sharp contrast, John’s Jesus is anything but humble. Rather, he puts Pilate in his place, causing great angst with the governor in his final sentence of death by crucifixion.

The practical question: when faced with grave consequences is the mission of whether the today’s follower of Jesus is to go down humbly or fighting to the end?

What is Scripture?

Behind all of these conflicts, there is an underlying question. What comprises legitimate scripture? And, on whose authority. For most (but not all) Christians, this question was settled by an Easter (or Festal) letter from Athanasius bishop of Alexandria – in 367 AD when he listed all 27 books of the current New Testament as canonical.

Even Athanasius (also known as the chief defender of the Nicene Creed), included a large caveat with his listing. Also identified are other books that he felt deserved to be read in churches for edification, though not of the same standing as the canonized 27.

A few have challenged this fait accompli – among them Martin Luther. Luther questioned the canonicity of several so-called Catholic epistles – among them Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. In particular, he objected to the message of James (Jesus’ brother) that “faith without works is dead.” His derogatory term for James’ letter was that of a “right strawy epistle.”

Inductive vs. Deductive?

This blog has essentially aimed to refute the case against inerrancy on the basis of inductive reasoning – arguing from the available biblical evidence to reach an empirically supportable conclusion.

An alternative approach is to use deductive reasoning, with the argument for inerrancy often premised on two pivotal assumptions: a) the Bible is the Word of God; and b) God can not lie. Therefore the conclusion: c) Scripture must be wholly true.

We have not directly addressed the deductive logic in this blog, but will summarily dismiss it in our next post. A hint: if the premises of the argument are incomplete or otherwise in error, then the conclusion may be similarly negated.

God’s Choice?

… Or phrased only slightly more elegantly: Why Does God Prefer Inspiration over Inerrancy? This is a second (and probably the most important) topic that we also will take up in our next blog. Until then, …


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Where Are The Christians (Part 2)?

Yes, it’s finally time to take on Part 2 of our blog titled “Where Are The Christians?” As research by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has demonstrated, the Christians of today aren’t where we might think. Unlike a century ago when two-thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe, there is a different story-line today.

Western civilization no longer has the monopoly on Christianity. As summarized by Pew, today’s “Christians are also geographically widespread – so far-flung, in fact, that no single continent or region can indisputably claim to be the center of global Christianity.”

That’s the good news. For the first time in human history, the gospel is reaching into every nook and cranny of the globe – in fulfillment of the Great Commission.

But in our last post, we also outlined the bad news which is two-fold: a) the cradle of Christianity has been left behind; and b) former centers of Christianity as in Europe are increasingly nominal in their faith and practice.

Three possible reasons were advanced for this conundrum:

  • Christianity is a religion of the poor
  • God intentionally wills the action to keep shifting
  • The Church has misunderstood the Commission, making Christianity unsustainable wherever it has taken root

Let’s examine each of these, in turn.

A Religion of the Poor

This argument, as summarized from the last post, is that as people become more affluent and cosmopolitan, they see less need for God. While appealing intellectually, this argument is not well supported by the history of the Jesus movement.

Despite claims that Jesus’ roots in Galilee were impoverished, the evidence suggests otherwise. During his sojourn on earth, Galilee was well populated with multiple urban centers, burgeoning empire-competitive industries, and increasing manifestations of wealth. Just a stone’s throw from Nazareth, Sepphoris was destroyed at about the time of Jesus birth and rebuilt as the capitol of Galilee during his boyhood – a possible place of employment for his earthly father Joseph.

As a young man, the capitol shifted to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee – another major construction project. Jesus relocated a few miles north to Capernaum – renowned for its global fishing prowess and business activity for some of his earliest disciples. The so-called “Jesus boat” found and now museum-displayed represents sophisticated mortise and tenon joinery, not the work of unsophisticated country rubes.

In Jerusalem, Jesus had (a few) friends in high and wealthy places – like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. His movement was supported by women of means, including the wife of the king’s steward.

We find a similar story in Paul’s evangelization of the Roman world. Paul was himself both a Jew trained by the top teacher of his day and a Roman citizen. He took his message to the most important and wealthiest cities of the empire – including Antioch, Corinth, Athens and Rome. Those who heard him and responded were a wide range of urbanites – ranging from slaveowners to slaves,business owners to laborers.

The message of Jesus has fared best when carried forth by persons and communities representing all walks of life – from the least to the most favored. Where the message has faltered has been in places like Europe where the favored elites abandoned even the pretense of faith. Or in the US where academics schooled in places that were founded to train pastors have transitioned to become bastions of agnosticism and atheism.

Is this disconnect inevitable or is it the result of something else? If Christianity is to again become relevant in the cultured west, it needs to again compete for the minds and the pocketbooks of the elite as well as the marginalized. For the urban cores as well as the suburbs and rural types. It’s happened before and can again. Read on.

God Moves On

This argument is that God may intentionally will the action to keep shifting. Christianity transitions from its initial home in the Levant to Rome to western Europe to North America – and now to the southern hemisphere. Hearts initially receptive to the gospel inevitably become hardened – as people and nations turn to other priorities. And God looks for greener pastures for the flock of tomorrow.

While this path seems to be borne out by the evidence of history, there remains the question as to whether this course is inevitable. Can the cycle of sin to faith to backsliding be broken? Is Christianity sustainable?

The answer is maybe yes. But this depends on first understanding the third and final reason for Christian demise.

The Church Misread the Commission

When Jesus commanded making “disciples of all nations,” he wasn’t asking for nations of Christian robots. No as he himself states, Jesus came not to bring peace, but division – even in his own church. As iron sharpens iron, so the church can sharpen itself and maintain its competitive edge, but only if heterodoxy is prized over orthodoxy.

The first three centuries after Jesus’ resurrection were ones of extraordinary church planting and growth – despite imperial opposition and persecution. A key reason was that no single entity controlled the entire movement. There were great and healthy debates over issues ranging from the deity of Jesus to the determination of how to re-integrate those who apostatized during periods of persecution to the question of which books belonged in a New Testament canon.

This free-market of Christian belief and practice came to an end in 325 AD with the Council of Nicaea and a church creed imposed by imperial command. The inevitable outcome was a 1,200 year slide into monopolistic mediocrity – in matters both spiritual and material.

With Luther and Calvin, there came the prospect of renewed diversity. However, as each nation (or region) adopted its own state religion the practical on-the-street outcome was continued monopoly. And when these state monopolies came into unbridled conflict, the result was attrition by armed conflict ending in two world wars. Religion was rightly perceived as part of the problem, not the solution. So Europeans while nominally Christian have essentially walked away from any day-to-day interaction with their God.

America has had it slightly better, so far. When Puritanism got too overbearing, Roger Williams could go next door to Rhode Island, start a Baptist congregation and become the father of American religious liberty. The Catholics got their piece in Maryland. And Pennsylvania, while nominally Quaker, offered a little something for everybody.

This perhaps explains why committed Christians retain a stronger hold in the U.S. than Europe. However, with the late 20th century collapse of mainline Christianity, there is now little effective check on an ever more fundamentalist bent that runs from any urbane assumption of secular as well as spiritual responsibility.

Where to from Here?

The hypothesis advanced by this discussion is that the only way to not only build but sustain Christianity is to embrace diversity over uniformity, heterodoxy over orthodoxy, market competition over monopolistic mediocrity. Putting Christianity back into the urban fray.

How might this play out across the globe? A few ideas:

  • In Europe, reminders of the intensity of a Christian past can be found in art – each painter investing his own take of the truth. Rediscover and value the diverse messages behind the art. Making God relevant can again be invigorating, even fun. And encouraging a greater mixing of Protestant, Catholic, and offbeat Christian expression within the borders of each nation-state.
  • America needs mainline churches that can capture the imagination of Millennials, putting God back in the marketplace. Giving their fundamentalist and pentecostal brethren a reason to again compete – bringing us all back to re-examine scriptural truth.
  • With a pope of their own, South America perhaps epitomizes the ability for a seemingly ossified Catholic church to reinvigorate – partly with the help of pentecostal influences in and outside the church. The challenge will be to keep a good thing going – without reverting to winner-take-all theology.
  • Burgeoning Christian movements in Asia bring needed new blood and new perspectives to the faith – but with a need for participants east and west to revel in rather than stifle multiple and heterodox streams of Christian practice.
  • And the Levant could again benefit from the civilizing effects of greater toleration of religious and cultural diversity – among varied strains of Islamic, Jewish, and Christian expression.

Conflict, not peace. That’s the name of the game. God’s game – for our gain. An internally competitive church brings out the best in Christian faith. There is greater opportunity for God to personalize his gifts to the talents and needs of each individual and faith community. We compete in love and mutual respect – with resulting unity in the God of our salvation.


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