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Who Moved the Stone? 8. Between Sunset and Dawn

By Frank Morison


      It is strange that there is no escaping the clock in all this baffling story of the closing phase of the life of Jesus.

      We saw in an earlier chapter how the inexorable pressure of events precipitated the arrest, forced the hands of the authorities, prolonged the hour of the preliminary hearing, and modified profoundly the character of the Roman trial. It is as though everything in this affair was done under the lash of an invisible taskmaster, from whose decree there was no appeal. So now, whether we realize it at first or not, we shall find the problem steadily narrowing itself down to an investigation of what was happening just outside the walls of Jerusalem about 1,900 years ago between sunset on a certain Saturday and the first streaks of dawn on the following morning. Let us begin by considering in some detail the various hypotheses that have been put forward to account for the facts.

      There is, of course, one suggestion that few readers of this book will expect to be argued seriously. I mean the suggestion, so widely circulated in apostolic times, that the disciples themselves had stolen or abducted the body. I do not propose to devote any considerable amount of space to testing the historical accuracy of this charge because the verdict has been anticipated by the almost universal sense and feeling of mankind. So far as I know there is not a single writer whose work is of critical value today who holds that there is even a case for discussion. We know these eleven men pretty well by their subsequent actions and writings. Somehow they are not built that way. There is no trace of the daring sort of ringleader who would have had the imagination to plan a coup like that and to carry it through without detection. Even if it had been possible, and the disciples the men to do it, the subsequent history of Christianity would have been different. Sooner or later, someone who knew the facts would have been unable to keep them hidden.

      Further, no great moral structure like the early church, characterized as it was by lifelong persecution and personal suffering, could have reared its head on a statement that every one of the eleven apostles knew to be a lie. I have asked myself many times, would Peter have been a party to a deception like that, would John, would Andrew, would Philip or Thomas? Whatever the explanation of these extraordinary events maybe, we maybe certain it was not that.

      We are left, therefore, with the problem of the vacant tomb still unsolved. Can we get any light by exploring the various other explanations that have been advanced?

      There are, in the main, six independent lines of critical approach to this mailer. Four of them assume the vacancy of the tomb as a historic fact, while the others take the more extreme view that the story is either entirely apocryphal or that the tomb was not investigated under the conditions described in the Gospels. Very briefly these hypotheses may be summarized as follows:

      1. Joseph of Arimathea secretly removed the body to a more suitable resting-place.

      2. The body was removed by order of the Roman power.

      3. The body was removed by the Jewish authorities to prevent the possible veneration of the tomb.

      4. Jesus' life was not really extinct. He recovered in the cool of the grave.

      5. The women mistook the grave in the uncertain light.

      6. The grave was not visited at all and the story about the women was a later accretion.

      This is a wide field of presuppositions and, so far as I know, includes every serious alternative to the Gospel account that has been put forward. Let us look at them in turn for a few moments.

      1. "Joseph of Arimathea removed the Body."

      At first sight the suggestion that the man who, by universal consent, begged the body of Jesus from the Roman procurator, might himself have removed it for private reasons to another place, is one that seems to carry considerable weight.

      The inferences drawn by a number of writers from the rather slender details given in the Gospels are that the tomb was probably purchased by Joseph for his own use, that its proximity to the scene of the Crucifixion suggested its temporary employment during the Sabbath, and that at the earliest possible moment Joseph would wish to remove the remains to a more permanent resting place. All this is very .understandable and, if the theory stood alone, it would present a quite remarkable and convincing aspect of self-consistency and strength. But we cannot leave a serious historical hypothesis in this state. It has to be worked out and superimposed on the situation it attempts to explain. The far, as well as the near, consequences have to be explored and by its power to satisfy the whole of these conditions it must finally be judged.

      Now a closer examination of this hypothesis reveals certain weaknesses and inconsistencies that gravely affect its probability. In the first place, the hour required for this supposititious removal (necessarily between the close of the Sabbath and the first sign of dawn) is in itself a rather strange time for a respected leader of the people to choose for a perfectly legitimate operation that could have been performed much better and more expeditiously at the break of day. It should never be forgotten that on this theory Joseph of Arimathea and the little party of women were independently and quite unknown to each other planning to perform a service that would bring them to the tomb at the earliest possible moment consistent with the observance of the Sabbath. Because of the difficulties presented by the darkness that moment was unquestionably the break of day. Theoretically, therefore, Mary Magdalene and her friends, upon reaching the tomb, ought to have come upon the party of Joseph already at work.

      There is no trace, however, of this dramatic meeting taking place. We are compelled, therefore, to put the supposed removal further back into the night. We have to think of a party of men operating with lamps or torches, working under the maximum difficulties, picking their way through the unlighted regions beyond the city wall, carrying a heavy body, probably for some considerable distance, and depositing it in another grave. We have to think of them going to the trouble of removing all the grave-clothes first, leaving these in the tomb and removing the naked body to its destination. And we have to regard them as either forgetting to close the door of the old tomb or not wishing for the moment to waste time by doing so.

      Let us try to see the full force and weight of this particular reconstruction of the scene. I can imagine someone saying, "Are we not here on the track of reality? Granted that dawn would have been the ideal time for this operation, but events may have determined otherwise. News flies quickly in proximity to a great national high road and Joseph may have feared that a task requiring at least two hours for its accomplishment might draw a large and dangerous crowd if undertaken after sunrise. May it not be that he really did carry out the preliminaries under cover of darkness and that when Mary Magdalene and her party arrived at the tomb, the party had already left for the locality of the permanent burial place?"

      This view of the matter possesses in a remarkable degree the required consistency with the records. It explains the surprise of the women on finding the great stone rolled away. It accounts for the tomb being discovered to be vacant. It agrees profoundly with Mary Magdalene's breathless message to the two disciples: "They have taken away the Lord, and we know not where they have laid him!" If there were no other conditions to be satisfied, this would be the supremely convincing and natural explanation. But again no theory, however plausible and convincing at first sight, can stand alone. It must fit the big facts of the situation as well as the little. And it is with the big facts that no conceivable adjustment seems to be possible.

      There are two ways of regarding Joseph of Arimathea consistently with the narratives. He was either (a) a secret follower or disciple of Jesus who seriously desired to perform openly this service to one whose leadership he had hesitated to acknowledge during life, or (b) a pious member of the Sanhedrin who was concerned only with the fulfillment of the Jewish law, which enjoined burial of the crucified prisoner before sunset.

      A great deal has been made of the second possibility, chiefly by those who are anxious to show cause for Joseph's supposed reluctance to allow the body of Jesus to remain in his own tomb. It seems to me, however, that there is one insuperable difficulty in the way of its acceptance. The Jewish law that enjoined burial before sunset applied equally to the two thieves, and there is no suggestion that Joseph occupied himself with, or even gave a thought to, the remains of these two men. Now this is remarkable, because all three cases, involving as they did the capital sentence, came within the Roman jurisdiction. It was quite as necessary to obtain Pilate's permission in the case of the two thieves as it was in that of Jesus. No doubt the priests did later obtain official authority to deal with these two men, and their bodies were probably east into the common grave, but this was clearly after Joseph of Arimathea had made his own personal and independent request. The fact that Joseph did make this isolated application to Pilate shows that he was not acting in an official or representative sense. In any case, why should an honorable councilor and a member of the Sanhedrin have undertaken with his own hands a menial task that could more appropriately have been left to the civil guard?

      Second, there are very definite indications in the apocryphal literature that the priests were very angry with Joseph of Arimathea and summoned him before the council. There would have been no occasion for such anger if he had acted merely at their behest, but very good reasons for it if he had stultified their collective action in the eyes of the people and of Pilate himself, by giving to the body of Jesus an honorable and respectful burial. Finally, there is the explicit statement in Matthew's Gospel that Joseph was a disciple, and Luke says that he had not consented to their counsel and deed.

      These considerations, taken together, seem to suggest that Joseph really was a sympathizer with Jesus who, stirred to the depths of his being by the illegality and fanaticism of what had been done, decided to give openly an honorable burial to the great Teacher. With this object he went expressly to Pilate to beg the body and with this object he chose his own tomb.

      Now when we accept this view of Joseph of Arimathea, we admit also a whole circle of ideas that are inseparable from it. In the first place, it is extremely unlikely that in such circumstances Joseph would have wished to remove the body of Jesus at all. If he took the action recorded of him in the Gospels he compromised and even destroyed his social standing with the official and ruling caste. By that one act he threw in his lot irrevocably with the party of Jesus. He would hardly have adopted a bold and courageous course like that if he had not held Jesus in deep love and veneration. To one in his position, having made at long last the sacrifice he had hesitated to make during Christ's living ministry, the thought that the revered Leader rested in his own tomb would have been an imperishable consolation -the one hallowed recollection that would brighten the sad memories of his declining days. The more closely we consider this action of Joseph of Arimathea, the more we get the impression of a man acting on an inner compulsion to seize the last fleeting opportunity to align himself with the cause of Jesus before it was too late. Would he have incurred the penalties inseparable from his action the contempt of his old associates, the deep hostility of the priesthood, the ignominy of declaring himself a follower of the discredited and crucified Prophet and have been willing within thirty-six hours to part with the glory? I think not. Overwhelmingly, psychology is against it.

      But there is another and even more cogent reason for thinking that Joseph was not responsible for the removal of the body. Within seven weeks at the latest the disciples were back in Jerusalem declaring with the utmost certainty and conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead. If Joseph had made a perfectly legitimate removal of the body and (to avoid a popular demonstration) had done so in the middle of the night before Mary and her friends arrived at the garden, the true facts of the matter must have been quite easily accessible to the priests. After all, another tomb had to be found, and at least two or three helpers were required to carry the body. Why then when all Jerusalem was seething with the Christian controversy, did they not simply tell the truth and thus give an effective quietus to the rumors due to the disappearance of the body?

      Finally, and this to my mind carries conclusive weight, we cannot find in the contemporary records any trace of a tomb or shrine becoming the center of veneration or worship on the ground that it contained the relics of Jesus. This is inconceivable if it was ever seriously stated at the time that Jesus was really buried elsewhere than in the vacant tomb. Rumor would have asserted a hundred supposititious places where the remains really lay, and pilgrimages innumerable would have been made to them.

      Strange though it may appear, the only way we can account for the absence of this phenomenon is the explanation offered in the Gospels, viz., that the tomb was known, that it was investigated a few hours after the burial, and that the body had disappeared.

      2 and 3. "The authorities (Jewish or Roman) removed the Body."

      It will be convenient to take these two suggested solutions together, since the situation created by them is not markedly different from the one we have been considering.

      It is no doubt possible; even at this distance of time, to suggest reasons why the body of Jesus might have been moved officially by either the Roman or the Jewish power, though the intrinsic probability of such a proceeding seems to be slight. Pilate was an obstinate man, as his curt refusal to alter the terms of the inscription shows. He was clearly glad of any excuse to be rid of this painful incident, and if a Jew of substance desired and was granted the necessary permission to take charge of and bury the body, what more need have been done? With the procurator in the mood in which he apparently then was, it would have required some exceedingly strong arguments to have induced him to alter his decision even at the request of the Jewish power.

      There is, of course, a very persistent tradition, both in the Gospels and the apocryphal writings, that the Jews did go to Pilate with a request. I shall deal with the very singular but important question of the guards in a later chapter. But the whole point of this tradition is to the effect that what the priests are said to have sought of Pilate was not permission to remove the body, but to prevent it from being removed or stolen. There is not the slightest hint or suggestion in the earlier extant writings, apocryphal or otherwise, that the priests ever contemplated changing the burial place, while there are a number of distinct statements that they were concerned lest some unauthorized person should abduct the body.

      But the whole case for the supposed official removal of the body really breaks down when we confront it by the admitted facts of the after-situation. For if the priests induced Pilate to change the burial place, or to authorize their doing so, they must have known the ultimate and final resting place, and in that event they would never have been content with the obviously unsatisfactory and untrue statement that the disciples had stolen the body. They would surely have taken the much stronger ground that the body had been removed for judicial reasons by Pilate's command or at their own request. Such a statement, made on the authority of the high priest, would have been final. It would have destroyed forever the possibility of anyone credibly asserting the physical resurrection of Jesus, because in the last resort, and if challenged, they could always have produced the remains. It is the complete failure of anyone to produce the remains, or to point to any tomb, official or otherwise, in which they were said to lie, and this ultimately destroys every theory based on the human removal of the body.

      4. "Jesus did not really die on the cross."

      I include this suggestion here more for the sake of completeness than in the expectation that the reader will desire to hear it seriously argued. It is really little more than a historical curiosity. Driven by the immense strength and cogency of the case for the empty tomb, the German rationalist Venturini put forward the suggestion that Christ did not actually die on the cross, but fainted, and that in the cool temperature of the grave He recovered and subsequently appeared to the disciples.

      This suggestion, while attempting to produce a strictly rational explanation of the post-crucifixion phenomena, is surely the least rational of all. It ignores the deadly character of the wounds inflicted on Jesus, the frightful laceration of the hands and feet, the loss of strength through the ebbing away of blood, the hopelessness of human aid during the critical moments when it would be most needed, the tightdrawn bandages of the burial, the heavy stone. To try even to think of what would happen to an utterly collapsed constitution, bleeding from five torn and untended wounds, lying on the cold slab of a tomb in April without human succor of any kind, is to realize at once the unreasonableness of the argument. But the death-blow to this theory was dealt long ago by the distinguished critic, Strauss, in a passage that will repay study.

      ["It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening, and indulgence, and who still at last yielded to his sufferings, could have given to the disciples the impression that he was a conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life: an impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry. Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression which he had made upon them in life and in death, at the most could only have given it an elegiac voice, but could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship." Strauss, New Life of Jesus, i. 412]

      5. "The women made a mistake."

      This brings us to a suggestion that can be discussed fully only when we have studied in some detail the historic encounter at the tomb, but there are certain broad and general consequences of the theory that can more conveniently be considered here.

      The suggestion is that when Mary Magdalene and her friends came to the Garden on Sunday morning the light was very dim; indeed, that dawn was only lust breaking. Things take unusual shapes in the semi-darkness, and it is thought that in these circumstances the women may have made a genuine mistake in identifying the grave. It is suggested that, on reaching a tomb, which they unexpectedly found to be open, they encountered a young man the gardener has been indicated who, recognizing their mission, tried to tell them that Jesus was not there. The women were terrified, however, at the discovery of their errand, and without waiting for the young man to finish his sentence and thus explain their mistake, they fled from the Garden.

      It will be observed that this theory, despite its appearance of rationality, has one peculiar weakness. If it was so dark that the women accidentally went to the wrong tomb, it is exceedingly improbable that the gardener would have been at work. If it was late enough and light enough for the gardener to be at work, it is improbable that the women would have been mistaken. The theory thus rests on the synchronization of two very doubtful contingencies. This is, however, only part of the improbability and intellectual difficulty that gathers around it.

      In order to get this matter in the clearest possible light, I propose to take the statement of one of the ablest of its exponents, Dr. Lake, who has developed the theory with great fullness and lucidity in his book The Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I shall endeavor to give Lake's view as far as is possible in his own words, because the openness and candor of his style calls for an equal frankness in those who may be opposed to him. This is no place for mere dialectics. It is the theory itself that we want to study and understand.

      Now Lake begins, and I think rightly, with the assumption that the story of the women's visit to the tomb is an authentic piece of history. Whatever view we may take of what happened later, this particular episode is embedded too deeply in the primitive literature to be treated other than with respect. The story of the women's adventure is in the earliest authentic document we possess, the Gospel of Mark. It is repeated by Matthew and Luke; it is confirmed so far as Mary Magdalene herself is concerned by John; it is in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter; and, perhaps even more significantly, it is in that very ancient independent fragment, preserved by Luke in chapter 24, verses 13 to 24, the journey to Emmaus.

      The essential historicity of the women's visit is, therefore, not at present in doubt. But Lake is inclined to question whether the tomb to which they came really was the original and authentic grave of Christ.

      There are two main passages in which Lake develops his theme. In his chapter on "The Facts Behind the Tradition," he says:

      It is seriously a matter for doubt whether the women were really in a position to be quite certain that the tomb which they visited was that in which they had seen Joseph of Arimathea bury the Lord's body .... If it were not the same, the circumstances all seem to fall into line. The women came in the early morning to a tomb which they thought was the one in which they had seen the Lord buried. They expected to find a closed tomb, but they found an open one; and a young man, who was in the entrance, guessing their errand, tried to tell them that they had made a mistake in the place. "He is not here," said he; "see the place where they laid him," and probably pointed to the next tomb. But the women were frightened at the detection of their errand and fled, only imperfectly or not at all understanding what they heard. It was only later on, when they knew that the Lord was risen, and on their view that his tomb must be empty, that they came to believe that the young man was something more than they had seen; that he was not telling them of their mistake, but announcing the Resurrection, and that his intention was to give them a message for the disciples.

      The same idea is developed further in the following passage from "The Narrative in Mark":

      The burial was watched, probably from a distance, by the little band of women who had remained to see the last moments of their Master. None of the other disciples were present, for they had scattered after the arrest of Jesus (St. Peter had a little later than the rest), and had either already returned home or were in hiding in Jerusalem until they could find an opportunity of escape.

      Soon all the disciples found themselves once more in their old home, and prepared to return to their old methods of life. But to their surprise the Lord appeared, first to St. Peter and afterwards to others to those who lived in Judea as well as to the Galileans and under the influence of these appearances of which the details have not been accurately preserved, they came to believe that the Lord was risen and exalted to Heaven, and that they were called to return to Jerusalem to take up their Master's work.

      In Jerusalem they found the women who had watched the burial, and these told them that they had gone on the morning of the third day to supply the deficiencies of the burial given to the Lord by Joseph, but when they came to the grave, instead of finding it closed, they found it open, and a young man terrified them by telling them that Jesus whom they were seeking was not there. Thus to the already firm belief in the fact of the Resurrection a belief which to that generation implied that the grave was empty came to be added, on the strength of the women's report, that the Resurrection took place on the third day.

      I have given these particular extracts because they seem to me to present, very clearly and in Lake's own words, the fundamentals of his case, viz.:

      1. The women probably made a mistake.

      2. They did not immediately report their discovery, because the disciples were no longer in Jerusalem.

      3. The latter only heard the story when they returned from Galilee after an interval of some weeks.

      I do not propose to attempt here an examination of those subtler points in the original narratives that can be studied effectively only in the light of the far closer and more detailed investigation we will make in a later chapter. But there are three broad considerations that stand out and call for emphasis.

      In the first place, the evidence for the supposed absence or inaccessibility of the disciples on Easter Sunday (so vital to Lake's interpretation of the case) seems to me to be of a very doubtful and precarious character. It rests solely on a broken or partly completed sentence in Mark. Against this there is positive evidence of a most direct and demonstrative kind. Not only does Mark himself expressly imply the presence of the disciples, but the whole Synoptic tradition asserts and implies it too. ["But go, tell his disciples and Peter, He goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you" (Mark 16:7).]

      If there is one thing in the Gospel story that does not seem to admit of doubt it is that, although the earliest account says the disciples forsook Jesus and fled, they did not all flee. One man among them at least braved the tenors of the city that night and even obtained access to the scene of the midnight trial. That man was Peter.

      I do not know how the reader feels about this matter, but personally I am surer of the essential historicity of the pathetic little story of Peter's fall and repentance than of almost anything else in the Gospels. It is one of those stories that is intelligible enough as a transcript from real life but that would be quite inexplicable regarded as fiction. What possible explanation can we offer of a story so damning and derogatory to the reputation of one of the leading apostles getting into the first Christian account of the Passion save that it was an ineffaceable memory of an actual event.

      If, therefore, Peter was manifestly present in Jerusalem on Friday morning, who can say with any confidence that he and his companions had fled the city by the following Sunday?

      Second, the behavior of the women themselves, according to this hypothesis, is so curiously unnatural and strange. Remember who these women are. We are not dealing with mere acquaintances of the apostolic band, but with their own kith and kin. Salome was the mother of two of the disciples; Mary of Cleophas, her sister, of two others. Moreover, they were not normally resident in the city; they had come up specially for the Feast. If the disciples as a body were in any pressing kind of danger, their women-folk were in like peril. They could not leave them indifferently to the machinations of the priests or the fury of a section of the multitude. Some attempt to secure their safety and their speedy withdrawal from the city would assuredly be made.

      This interdependence of the women and the men very seriously embarrasses Lake's theory at its most vital point. Lake is compelled to keep the women in Jerusalem until Sunday morning, because he firmly believes that they really went to the tomb. He is also compelled to get the disciples out of Jerusalem before sunrise on Sunday because he holds that the women kept silence. Finally, to harmonize this with the fact that they did subsequently tell the story, with all its inevitable and logical results, he finds it necessary to keep the women in Jerusalem for several weeks while the disciples returned to their homes, had certain experiences, and came back to the capital.

      What does Lake imagine these women were doing all these weeks, in a foreign town, with every instinct and domestic tie pulling them northward? Would he himself in similar circumstances have gone off to safety, leaving his wife or his mother in a situation of unquestioned peril? I find it hard to believe. If it was safe for the women to remain in the city and go unostentatiously to the tomb of Jesus, it was safe for the disciples to remain also. If it was not safe for the disciples to remain, then Salome, Mary of Cleophas, and surely the mother of Jesus would have shared their flight.

      But there is a far deeper and more radical difficulty than this. Neither Lake nor P. Gardner-Smith, who has adopted the same view with slight reservations, seems to have realized the annihilating character of the evidential case that their theory, if true, would have placed within reach of the priests. Caiaphas and his friends must have been very different men from what we take them for if they did not see instantly that the supreme answer to all this nonsense about an empty grave was to produce the gardener.

      Here was the one man who could have spoken with complete and final authority, whose slightest word could have blown the whole flimsy story to the winds. Where are the traces of the controversy that must surely have followed so direct and damaging an appeal to the facts? Where is the confident statement of the priests that the grave of Jesus was not vacant, and that the moldering remains still lay within it? There is no trace of any such controversy or statement only the faint echo of the original charge that the disciples themselves had abducted the body.

      There are, indeed, two very good reasons why, as a matter of historic fact, this young man was never called as a witness by the enemies of Christianity. In the first place, as we shall see, he was probably not the gardener at all, and his presence at the cave in the dim light of Sunday morning was due to other causes. But the supreme and decisive factor lay in the fact that, throughout the early decades of Christianity, the physical vacancy of the authentic tomb of Christ was not in doubt. Events seem to have conspired to place that beyond the reach of argument.

      6. "The grave was not visited by the women."

      This brings us to a theory that is, perhaps, the only really alternative to the Gospel thesis.

      If it could be proved that that grave was not visited on Sunday morning, and that it lay undisturbed and perhaps unthought of for many months afterwards, then the rock on which all the preceding hypotheses ultimately founder would be removed. For if the women did not announce its vacancy, the priests would be under no compulsion to formulate a theory, and the city would have gone about its normal life, save for the inevitable excitement and discussion occasioned by so resounding an event as the Crucifixion.

      Yet I submit that none of the six hypotheses we have been considering falls in greater or completer intellectual ruin than this. As the sequel will show, the history of what happened afterwards belies it at every turn and corner of the road.

Back to Frank Morison index.

See Also:
   Who Moved the Stone? Preface
   Who Moved the Stone? 1. The Book that Refused to be Written
   Who Moved the Stone? 2. The Real Case Against the Prisoner
   Who Moved the Stone? 3. What Happened Before Midnight on Thursday
   Who Moved the Stone? 4. A Psychological Parallelogram of Forces
   Who Moved the Stone? 5. The Situation on Friday Afternoon
   Who Moved the Stone? 6. Thirty-Six Hours Later
   Who Moved the Stone? 7. On the Behavior of Two Sisters and the Men Who Fled in the Night
   Who Moved the Stone? 8. Between Sunset and Dawn
   Who Moved the Stone? 9. The Historic Crux of the Problem
   Who Moved the Stone? 10. The Evidence of the Principal Fisherman
   Who Moved the Stone? 11. The Evidence of the Prisoner's Brother
   Who Moved the Stone? 12. The Evidence of the Man from Tarsus
   Who Moved the Stone? 13. The Witness of the Great Stone
   Who Moved the Stone? 14. Some Realities of that Far-Off Morning
   Who Moved the Stone? 15. The Servant of the Priest

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