|How did the change from Saturday to Sunday come about in early Christianity? Did Jesus change the day of worship to Sunday or did the apostles or someone else?|
Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi grew up as a Seventh-day Adventist in Rome, Italy, a stone-throw from the Vatican wall in the days when considerable hostility existed against religious minorities. He vividly remembers the ridicule and rejection he experienced, especially for honoring the Savior on the Sabbath. For example, his classmates called him "Il Giudeo-the Jew," or "L'eretico-the heretic" because he would not attend school on Saturday and would not play soccer with them on that day.
These painful experienced instilled within Sam a desire to know more about which is God's Holy Day and how should it be observed by Christians today. As a teenager he never imagined that the Lord would one day make it possible for him to research and publish his dissertation at the most prestigious Jesuit University in the world, the Pontifical Gregorian University, founded by Ignatius Loyola himself, over 450 years ago.
The idea of attending the Gregoriana was suggested to Dr. Sam by a beloved Catholic priest, Father Ravasio, whom he came to know in Ethiopia where he was serving as a missionary. One day he told the priest that he had been accepted at Yale for a doctoral program in Church History. The priest replied: "Sam you are a Roman and should go to study at the Gregoriana." How can I? Sam replied. Surely they will never accept a heretic like me. "Don't say that!" the priest said. "After Vatican II you are no longer a heretic. You are a separated brother. If you apply, you stand a good chance to be accepted." Dr. Sam followed his advice.
Sam has stated that though he was accepted as a "Separated Brother," he was treated as a real Christian brother. He treasured the pleasant memories of the five years he spent at the Gregoriana. According to Dr. Sam, the professor who directed his dissertation, Father Vincenzo Monachino, S. J., is brilliant, godly and open minded. At first he was reluctant to allow Sam to investigate the origin of Sunday keeping, because he had worked on the same subject for the previous two years with a Jesuit priest C. S. Mosna, who also wrote his dissertation on the history of Sunday during the first four centuries (Storia Della Domenica --History of Sunday). When Father Vincenzo Monachino noticed Sam's keen interest he graciously approved his proposal and spent many hours with him reexamining the Biblical and historical data. Dr. Sam says it takes a great scholar to be willing to reconsider one's conclusions. Prof. Monachino, according to Sam, was such a scholar whom he will respect for the rest of his life.
Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi dissertation was first published in 1977 by
the Pontifical Gregorian University Press with the official Catholic imprimatur.
Since then it has been reprinted 13 times in English and has been translated
in a dozen of languages. The French translation was done by two Belgian
Benedictine monks as a labor of love and published by a Catholic press
From Saturday to Sunday
How did the change come about from Saturday to Sunday in early Christianity? To find an answer to this question I spent five years at the Pontifical University in Rome, investigating for my doctoral dissertation the earliest Christian documents. The findings of my investigation have been published in my book From Sabbath to Sunday: A Historical Investigation of the Rise of Sunday Observance in Early Christianity. This article represents a brief summary of my research.
Historically, the change from Sabbath to Sunday has been attributed to the ecclesiastical authority of the Roman Catholic church rather than to Biblical or apostolic precepts. Thomas Aquinas, for example, explicitly states that:
"the observance of the Lord's Day took the place of the observance of the Sabbath not by virtue of the [Biblical] precept but by the institution of the church." (1)Recently, however, some scholars have argued that Sunday observance has a Biblical and apostolic origin. According to these scholars, from the inceptions of the Church the Apostles themselves chose the first day of the week in place of the seventh day in order to commemorate the resurrection of Christ. (2)
My own assessment of the sources is that this thesis is wrong on two counts. First, the change from Saturday to Sunday occurred sometime after 135 A.D. as a result of an interplay of political, social, pagan and religious factors to be mentioned below. Second, the change originated in Rome and not in Jerusalem. Before submitting the reasons for my conclusions, we shall briefly examine the alleged role of Christ, of the resurrection and of the Jerusalem church in the origin of Sunday.
Jesus and the Origin of Sunday
A popular view holds that Christ by his provocative method of Sabbath keeping-which caused considerable controversy with the religious leaders of His day-intended to pave the way for the abandonment of the Sabbath and the adoption of Sunday keeping instead. This view clearly distorts the intent of Christ's controversial Sabbath activities and teachings which were clearly designed not to nullify but to clarify the divine intent of the Fourth Commandment.
Christ never conceded to have broken the Sabbath commandment. On the contrary He defended Himself and His disciples from the charge of Sabbath breaking by appealing to the Scriptures: "Have you read . . ." (Matt 12:3-5). The intent of Christ's provocative Sabbath teachings and activities was not to pave the way for Sunday keeping, but rather to show the true meaning and function of the Sabbath, namely, a day "to do good" (Matt 12:8), "to save life" (Mark 3:4), to loose people from physical and spiritual bonds (Luke 13:16), and to show "mercy" rather than religiosity (Matt 12:7).
The Resurrection and the Origin of Sunday
Did the apostles introduce Sunday keeping instead of Sabbath keeping in order to commemorate Christ's resurrection by means of the Lord's Supper celebration? This view, though popular, is devoid of Biblical and historical support. The major reasons, briefly stated are the following.
No Command of Christ or of the Apostles
. The New Testament never suggests or commands to celebrate Christ's resurrection by a weekly or annual Sunday celebration. This silence is noteworthy in view of the specific instructions given by Christ regarding such practices as baptism (Matt 28:19-20), the Lord's Supper (Mark 14:24-25; 1 Cor 11:23-26) and foot-washing (John 13:14-15).
If Jesus wanted the day of his resurrection to be observed as a day of rest and worship, would He not told the women and the disciples when He rose: "Come apart and celebrate My Resurrection?" Instead He told the women "Go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee" (Matt 28:10) and to the disciples "Go . . . make disciples . . . baptizing them" (Matt 28:19).
None of the utterances of the risen Savior reveal an intent to memorialize His resurrection by making Sunday the new day of rest and worship.
No Designation of Sunday as Day of the Resurrection
Sunday is never called in the New Testament as "Day of the Resurrection." It is consistently called "First day of the week." The references to Sunday as day of the resurrection first appear in the early part of the fourth century. (3) By that time Sunday had become associated with the resurrection.
Sunday-Resurrection Presupposes Work
The Sunday resurrection does not mark the completion of Christ's earthly ministry which ended on a Friday afternoon when the Savior said: "It is finished" (John 19:30), and then rested in the tomb according to the commandment. Instead, the resurrection marks the beginning of Christ's new intercessory ministry (Acts 1:8; 2:33), which, like the first day of creation, presupposes work rather than rest.
Lord's Supper: Sacrifice and Parousia
The very Lord's Supper which many Christians regard as the core of Sunday worship, initially was celebrated on different days of the week and commemorated Christ's sacrifice and Second Coming rather than His resurrection. Paul, for instance, who claims to transmit what "he received from the Lord" (1 Cor 11:23), explicitly states that the rite commemorated not Christ's resurrection, but His sacrifice and Second Coming ("You proclaim the Lord's death till he comes" (1 Cor 11:26)).
Similarly, Passover, known today as Easter Sunday, was celebrated during apostolic times, not on Sunday to commemorate the resurrection, but on the fixed day of Nisan 14, primarily as a memorial of Christ's suffering and death.
The Earliest Reference to Sunday
The earliest explicit references to Sunday keeping are found in the writings of Barnabas (about 135 A.D.) and Justin Martyr (about 150 A.D.). Both writers do mention the resurrection as a basis for Sunday observance but only as the second of two reasons, important but not predominant. Barnabas' first theological motivation for Sunday keeping is eschatological, namely, that Sunday as "the eight day" represents "the beginning of another world." (4) Justin's first reason for the Christians' Sunday assembly is the inauguration of creation: "because it is the first day on which God, transforming the darkness and prime matter, created the world." (5)
The above indications suffice to discredit the claim that Christ's resurrection on the first day of the week caused the abandonment of the Sabbath and the adoption of Sunday. The truth is that initially the resurrection was celebrated existentially rather than liturgically, that is, by a victorious way of life rather than by a special day of worship.
Jerusalem and the Origen of Sunday
Many believe that Sundaykeeping began in Jerusalem by the authority of the apostolic church. This view rests on two incorrect assumptions. The first is that because the resurrection and appearance of Jesus occurred in Jerusalem on Sunday, the Apostles instituted Sunday worship to commemorate these events by a distinctive Christian liturgy. The second incorrect assumption is that the Apostles were encouraged by the fact that the earliest Christians in Jerusalem "no longer felt at home in the Jewish Sabbath service." (6) The earliest documentary sources refute both these assumptions.
Regarding the first assumption we saw earlier that nothing in the New Testament prescribes or even suggests the commemoration of Jesus' resurrection on Sunday. The very name "Day of the Resurrection" does not appear in Christian literature until early in the fourth century.
No Radical Break
Regarding the second assumption, if the early Jerusalem Church had pioneered and promoted Sundaykeeping because they no longer felt at home with Jewish Sabbath keeping, we would expect to find in such a church an immediate break from Jewish religious traditions and services. Those who argue for an apostolic origin of Sunday observance make precisely this contention. But the opposite is the case.
The book of Acts as well as several Judeo-Christian documents persuasively demonstrate that both the ethnic composition and the theological orientation of the Jerusalem Church were profoundly Jewish. (7) Luke's characterization of the Jerusalem Church as "zealous for the law" (Acts 21:20), is an accurate description.
Attachment to the Law
The attachment of the Jerusalem Church to the Mosaic Law is reflected in some of the decisions of the first Jerusalem Council held about 49-50 A.D. (See Acts 15). The exemption from circumcision is there granted only "to brethren who are of the Gentiles" (Acts 15:23). No concession is made for Jewish-Christians, who must continue to circumcise their children.
Moreover, of the four provisions made applicable by the Jerusalem Council to Gentiles, one is moral (abstention from "unchastity") but three are ceremonial (even Gentile Christians are ordered to abstain "from contact with idols and from [eating] what has been strangled and from [eating] blood" (Acts 15:20). This concern of the Jerusalem Council for ritual defilement and Jewish food laws reflects its continued attachment to Jewish ceremonial law and its commands. It would be unthinkable that this Church at this early time would change the Sabbath to Sunday.
James' statement at the Jerusalem Council in support of his proposal to exempt Gentiles from circumcision but not from Mosaic laws in general, is also significant: "For generations past Moses has had spokesmen in every city; he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues" (Acts 15:21). All interpreters recognize that both in his proposal and in its justification, James reaffirms the binding nature of the Mosaic Law which was customarily taught every Sabbath in the synagogue.
Paul's Last Visit
Further insight is provided by Paul's last visit to Jerusalem. The Apostle was informed by James and the elders that thousand of converted Jews were "all zealous for the Law" (Acts 21:20). The same leaders then pressured Paul to prove to the people that he also "lived in observance of the law" (Acts 21-24), by undergoing a rite of purification at the Temple. In the light of this deep commitment to the observance of the Law, it is hardly conceivable that the Jerusalem Church would have abrogated one of its chief precepts-Sabbath keeping-and pioneered Sunday worship instead.
Did Sunday Originate After 70 A.D.?
The foregoing evidences has led some scholars to argue for the Palestinian origin of Sunday observance at a slightly later time, namely, after the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. (8) They presume that the flight of the Christians from Jerusalem to Pella as well as the psychological impact of the destruction of the Temple weaned Palestinian Christians away from Jewish observances such as Sabbathkeeping.
This assumption is discredited by both Eusebius and Epiphanius who inform us that the Jerusalem Church after 70 A.D. and until Hadrian's siege of Jerusalem in 135 A.D., was composed of and administered by converted Jews, characterized as "zealous to insist on the literal observance of the Law." (9) The orthodox Palestinian Jewish-Christian sect of the Nazarenes, who most scholars regard as "the very direct descendants of the primitive community" (10) of Jerusalem, retained Sabbath keeping on Saturday until the fourth century. Indeed, seventh-day Sabbath keeping was regarded as one of this Church's distinguishing characteristics. (11) This implies that Sabbath observance was not only the traditional custom of the Jerusalem Church, but also of Palestinian Jewish-Christians long after 70 A.D.
Of all the Christian Churches, the Jerusalem Church was both ethnically and theologically the closest and most loyal to Jewish religious traditions, and thus the least likely to change the day of the Sabbath.
After 135 A.D. radical changes occurred in the Jewish world. In that year, the Roman Emperor Hadrian crushed the Second Jewish Revolt which had been unsuccessfully led by Bar-Kokhba. Jerusalem became a Roman colony from which Jews (and Jewish Christians) were excluded. Hadrian renamed the city Aelia Capitolina and, more important still, he outlawed the practice of the Jewish religion in general and of Sabbathkeeping in particular throughout the empire. (12)
A whole body of Adversos Judaeos ("Against all Jews") literature began to appear at this time. Following the Roman lead, Christians developed a "Christian" theology of separation from and contempt toward the Jews. Characteristic Jewish customs such as circumcision and Sabbathkeeping were castigated.
There are indications that Sunday observance was introduced at this time as an attempt to emphasize to the Roman authorities the Christian distinction from Judaism.
New religious festivals such as Sunday keeping could be adopted and enforced only by a church that had severed it ties with Judaism. As we have seen, this excludes the Jerusalem Church prior to 135 A.D. After 135 A.D. the Jerusalem Church lost is religious prestige and went almost into oblivion, so it could hardly have pioneered such an important a change.
Rome and the Origin of Sunday
The most likely church for the source of this change is the Church of Rome. Here can be found the social, religious and political conditions which permitted and encouraged the abandonment of Sabbathkeeping and the adoption of Sunday worship instead.
Predominance of Gentile Converts
Contrary to most Eastern churches, the Church of Rome was predominantly composed of Gentile converts. Paul in his Epistle to this Church explicitly affirms: "I am speaking to you Gentiles" (Romans 11:13). (13) The predominant Gentile membership apparently contributed to an early Christian differentiation from the Jews in Rome. In 64 A.D., for instance, Nero placed the charge of arson exclusively on Christians, thus distinguishing them from the Jews.
Beginning with the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66 A.D.), various repressive measures-military, political and fiscal-were imposed upon the Jews, especially as their resurgent nationalism resulted in violent uprisings in many places outside of Palestine. Militarily, Vespasian and Titus crushed the First Jewish Revolt; and Hadrian, the Second Jewish Revolt (132-135 A.D.). Politically, Vespasian (69-79 A.D.) abolished the Sanhedrin and the office of the High Priest; later Hadrian outlawed the practice of Judaism altogether (ca. 135 A.D.). Fiscally, the Jews were subjected to a discriminatory tax (the fiscus judaicus) which was introduced by Vespasian and increased first by Domitian (81-96 A.D.) and later by Hadrian.
That these repressive measures were intensely experience in Rome is indicated by the contemptuous anti-Jewish literary comments of such writers as Seneca (d. 65 A.D.), Persius (34-62 A.D.), Petronius (ca. 66 A.D.), Quintillian (ca. 35-100 A.D.), Martial (ca. 40-104 A.D.), Plutarch (ca. 46-119 A.D.), Juvenal (125 A.D.) and Tacitus (ca. 55-120 A.D.), all of whom lived in Rome most of their professional lives. (15) They revile the Jews racially and culturally, deriding Sabbathkeeping and circumcision as examples of Judaism's degrading superstitions.
The mounting hostility of the Roman populace against the Jews forced Titus, though "unwilling" (invitus), to ask the Jewess Berenice, sister of Herod the Younger, whom he wanted to marry, to leave Rome. These circumstances as well as the conflict between Jews and Christians, apparently encouraged not only the production of a whole body of anti-Jewish literature in which a "Christian" theology of contempt for the Jews was developed, but also the repudiation of characteristic Jewish customs such as Sabbath keeping.
Measures Taken by the Church of Rome
The Church of Rome adopted concrete measures to wean Christians away from Sabbathkeeping and to encourage Sunday worship instead. Justin Martyr, for instance, writing in the mid-second century reduces the observance of the Sabbath to a temporary Mosaic ordinance which God imposed exclusively on the Jews as "a mark to single them out for punishment they so well deserve for their infidelities." (16)
This kind of negative reinterpretation of the Sabbath led Christians to transform their Sabbath observance from a day of feasting, joy and religious celebration into a day of fasting, with no eucharistic celebration or religious assemblies permitted. (17) The Saturday fast served not only to express sorrow for Christ's death, but also, as emphatically stated by Pope Sylvester (314-335 A.D.), to show "contempt for the Jews" (exsecratione Judaeorum) and for their Sabbath "feasting" (destructione ciborum). (18) The sadness and hunger resulting from the fast would enable Christians to avoid "appearing to observe the Sabbath with the Jews" (19) and would encourage them to enter more eagerly and joyfully into the observance of Sunday.
Because the basic function of the Saturday fast was to discourage Sabbathkeeping and to enhance Sunday worship, it seems likely that the Saturday fast and Sunday worship both originated contemporaneously and at the same place. There is no question that the Saturday fast was introduced by the Church of Rome.
Easter-Sunday and Weekly Sunday
The weekly Saturday fast developed as an extension or counterpart of the annual Holy-Saturday of Easter season, when all Christians fasted. (20) The annual Holy-Saturday Easter fast, like the weekly Saturday fast, was designed to express not only sorrow for Christ's death but also contempt for those whom Christians considered its perpetrators, namely the Jews. (21) Moreover, since the weekly and the annual Saturday fasts, as well as the weekly Sunday observance and Easter-Sunday, are frequently presented by the Church Fathers as interrelated in their meaning and function, presumably all these practices originated at the same time as part of the Easter-Sunday celebration. (22) It is important, therefore, to ascertain the time, place, and causes of the origin of Easter-Sunday, since this could well mark the genesis of Sunday observance as well.
In his account of the Easter controversy, Eusebius describes Bishop Victor of Rome (189-199 A.D.) as the champion of the Easter-Sunday custom, and Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus, as the defender of the Quartodeciman tradition. (23) Quartodeciman means 14 and refers to the 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan, the date when Jews observe passover.
Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon (from ca. 178 A.D.), intervened as peacemaker in the controversy. He urged Bishop Victor to emulate his predecessors, namely "Anicetus and Pius and Hyginus and Telesphoros and Sixtus" who though they celebrated Easter on Sunday, nevertheless were at peace with those who observed it on the 14th of Nisan. (24)
The fact that Irenaeus mentions Bishop Sixtus (ca. 116-126 A.D.) as the first bishop who did not observe the Quartodeciman Passover suggests the possibility that the feast began to be celebrated in Rome on Sunday at about that time. The innovation could well have been motivated by the desire to avoid Hadrian's repressive measures against Judaism.
This hypothesis is indirectly supported by Epiphanius' statement that the Easter controversy "arose after the time of the exodus of the bishops of the circumcision" from Jerusalem. (25) This exodus occurred after Hadrian crushed the Second Jewish Revolt in 135 A.D. Since Sixtus (ca. 116-126 A.D.) was Bishop of Rome only a few years earlier, he could well have been the initiator of Easter Sunday. Some time must be allowed before a new custom becomes a sufficiently widespread to provoke a controversy.
Differentiation From the Jews
While the exact date of the origin of Easter Sunday may be a subject of dispute, there seems to be a consensus of scholarly opinion that it was in Rome that the new custom was introduced to avoid "even the semblance of Judaism." (26) Constantine, in his letter to the Christian bishops at the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) exemplifies the marked anti-Judaic motivation for the repudiation of the Quartodeciman Passover. He writes:
"We ought not therefore to have anything in common with the Jews, for the Savior has shown us another way . . . In unanimously adopting this mode [i.e. Eastern Sunday] we desire, dearest brethren, to separate ourselves from the detestable company of the Jews." (27)This letter of the Council of Nicaea represents the culmination of a controversy initiated two centuries earlier which centered in Rome.
The same anti-Judaic motivations which caused the replacement of the Jewish Quartodeciman Passover with Easter Sunday also accounts for the contemporaneous substitution of Sabbath keeping with Sunday worship. This argument is supported not only by the fact that the Jewish Sabbath shared the same anti-Judaic condemnation as the Jewish Quartodeciman Passover, but also by the close nexus between the observance of the annual Easter Saturday-Sunday (a fast followed by a day of joy) and that of its weekly counterpart (the Saturday fast followed by Sunday worship). The basic unity between these annual and weekly observances is explicitly affirmed by the Fathers, (28) and further suggests a common origin in the Church of Rome at the same time and owing to similar causes.
Preeminence of the Church of Rome
Another important consideration is that only in Rome was there the "preeminent authority" (potentior principalitas) (29) exercised by the Bishop of Rome-the only one capable at that time of influencing the majority of Christians to adopt new religious observances. Thus, it seems clear that Sunday observance originated in Rome in the early part of the second century (about 135 A.D.) for the reasons I have outlined.
Sun Worship and the Origin of Sunday
The social, political, and religious conditions mentioned above, explain why the Sabbath was changed to Sunday. These do not explain, however, why Sunday rather than another day, such as Friday (the day of Christ's passion) was chosen.
Sun Worship and Sunday
The influence of sun worship with its "Sun-day" provides the most plausible explanation. The cult of Sol Invictus-the Invincible Sun-as shown by Gaston H. Halsberghe, became "dominant in Rome and in other parts of the Empire from the early part of the second century A.D." (30)
We know that the Roman sun-cults influenced Christian thought and liturgy. The Church Fathers' frequently rebuke Christians for venerating the sun. (31) In early Christian art and literature, the sun is often used as a symbol to represent Christ. (32) The orientation of early Christian churches was changed; instead of facing Jerusalem like synagogues, churches were orientated to the East. (33) The dies natalis solis Invicti (the birthday of the Invincible Sun) was chosen as the Christian Christmas.
The Advancement of the Day of the Sun
A second century change in the Roman calendar also suggests that Sun worship influenced the Christian adoption of Sunday as the new day of worship. The seven day week was first adopted by the Roman Empire in the first century A.D. At that time the days of the week were named after the planets (as they still are). Saturn's day (Saturday) was originally the first day of the week, followed by Sun's day. Under the influence of the Sun worship, however, a change occurred in the second century: The Sun's day (Sunday) was advanced from the position of second day of the week to that of first and most important day of the week. (34) This required each of the other days to be advanced one day, and Saturn's day thereby became the seventh day of the week for the Romans, as it had been for the Jews and Christians.
The advancement of the day of the sun to the first and most important day of the week presumably influenced Roman Christians with a pagan background to adopt and adapt the Sun's day for their Christian worship. This would serve to emphasize to non-Christian Romans the Christian similarity to Roman practices and the dissimilarity to Jewish customs. All of this supports-if only indirectly-the suggestion that Sunday was chosen for Christian worship because it was the Sun's day.
A more direct indication is provided by the use of the sun as a symbol to justify the actual observance of Sunday. The motifs of light and of the sun are frequently invoked by the Church Fathers to develop a theological justification for Sunday worship. God's creation of light on the first day and the resurrection of the Sun of Justice which occurred on the same day coincided with the day of the sun. Jerome, to cite only one example, explains:
"If it is called the day of the sun by the pagans, we most willingly acknowledge it as such, since it is on this day that the light of the world appeared and on this day the Sun of Justice has risen." (35)The day of the Sun, then, may well have been viewed by Christians familiar with its veneration, as a providential and valid substitution for the seventh day sabbath, since the substitution could well explain Biblical mysteries to the pagan mind by means of effective and familiar symbols. (36)
Both anti-Judaism and Sun-worship contributed to the change from Sabbath to Sunday. Anti-Judaism led many Christians to abandon the observance of the Sabbath to differentiate themselves from the Jews at a time when Judaism in general and Sabbathkeeping in particular were outlawed in the Roman empire. Sun-worship influenced the adoption of the observance of Sunday to facilitate the Christian identification and integration with the customs and cycles of the Roman empire.
The change from Sabbath to Sunday was not simply one of names or numbers,
but of authority, meaning and experience. It was a change from a holy day
divinely established to enable us to experience more freely and more fully
the awareness of divine presence and peace in our lives, into holiday which
has become an occasion to seek for personal pleasure and profit. This historical
change has greatly affected the quality of Christian life of countless
Christians who throughout the centuries have been deprived of the physical,
moral and spiritual renewal the Sabbath is designed to provide. The recovery
of the Sabbath is especially needed today when our souls, fragmented, penetrated
and desiccated by a cacophonous, tension-filled culture, cry out for the
release and realignment that awaits us on the Sabbath Day.
Written by: Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi
Professor of Theology and Church History at Andrews University (a Seventh-Day Adventist college) in Berrien Springs, Michigan
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