Analysis of the Historical Figure of Jesus of Nazareth, whose preaching represented a turning point in the history of humanity.

 1. Introduction to the Historical Figure of Jesus

Everything and its opposite has been said of Jesus of Nazareth.  What is agreed upon by all is that he is a cornerstone in history.  The purpose of this article is to be a starting point for those who would like to come closer to Jesus from a historical point of view, particularly by responding to several questions that some of my younger friends have asked me.

The first problem, however, lies in defining what history is, particularly in regards to “Jesus”. First of all, it should be clarified that the term “history” comes from the Greek ἱστορία (history) which means research and has the same root ιδ- as the verb ὁράω (orao, to see, a verb with three roots: ὁρά-; ιδ-; ὄπ-).  Thus, the perfect form of the verb,ὁίδα, òida, literally means “I saw”, but by extension, “I know”. It refers, in practice, to observing and consequently, to knowing after having experienced: this is the same sense that we find in the root of the Latin word “video” (v-id-eo) and in the word “idea” of Greek origin. I would add, in addition, that a prerequisite of historical investigation is, along with critical thinking, intelligence, and this, from the Latin terms intus lĕgĕre, literally means to read inside, to go deeper, all the while maintaining the ability to consider the totality of facts and events.

Therefore, having made this clarification, how shall we approach the “problem” of Jesus of Nazareth from the point of view of historical research?  Jean Guitton [1], the French Catholic philosopher who dedicated his life to researching this man from Nazareth, has developed three possible solutions:

  1. The Critical solution: Jesus of Nazareth actually existed and is at the origin of Christianity. This approach, however, must reject all miracles and inexplicable facts.
  2. Mythical Solution: Jesus of Nazareth never actually existed. Everything that is written and said about him is the invention of a group of religious fanatics.
  3. Solution of Faith: Jesus of Nazareth not only existed but everything written about him in the gospels and in the canonical writings of the New Testament is the truth.

2. Three simple questions about Jesus

The first question is: Did Jesus exist? To this first question, we can respond quite definitively: yes. We can therefore exclude the mythical hypothesis that Jesus arose out of someone’s imagination, given the meticulously detailed studies about him and his time, particularly in recent years, in the fields of biblical hermeneutics, historiography, archeology, linguistics and philology [2].

The second question: was he really so important? Without a doubt, given that our era is calculated to start with the year of his birth, “after Christ”. On the other hand, for many, for almost all those who have heard of him, even the most vehement opponents of Christianity and Christ’s followers’ worship of him, his message is one without equal in the annals of history.

“God on the cross: do we still not understand the frightening world of thoughts hidden in that symbol? All that suffers, all that is hung on the cross, is divine… We all hang on the cross, so we are divine [3]“. (Fiedrich Nietzsche)

“If today we regard children as human beings, in spite of their lack of basic social and cultural relationships, this is only because of the Judeo-Christian tradition and its specific conception of the human person [4]”. (Richard Rorty)

“Christianity is one of the greatest changes that mankind has ever known: so great, so comprehensive and profound, so full of consequences, so unexpected and irresistible in its realization, that it is no wonder that it appeared or possibly still appears to be a miracle in which God intervened in all things human, giving us new laws and direction [5]”. (Benedetto Croce)

Third question: who really was Jesus of Nazareth? A very difficult question! The writer can only try to apply the criteria of what has been called the Third Quest[6] on the “historical Jesus”, and, as a historian, to limit himself to observing and analyzing the data that the real giants in the field have abundantly displayed in their monumental books on the subject.  I am referring to the Italians Giuseppe Ricciotti and Vittorio Messori, to the Israeli scholar (Jewish) David Flusser, to the German Joachim Jeremias and to another illustrious German, Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI.

The supporters of this Third Quest start with the assumption formulated by Albert Schweitzer: you cannot ideologically reject everything of a miraculous nature that appears in the Gospels and in the New Testament, discarding it purely because it does not conform with the canons of Enlightenment rationalism. Furthermore, as Benedict XVI adds in his book on Jesus of Nazareth [7], the limits of the historical-critical method consist substantially in “leaving the word in the past,” without being able to make it “current, present”; in “treating the words in front of you as human words”; and finally, in “further subdividing the books of Scripture according to their sources, without allowing for the unity of all these writings as a Bible to be an an immediate historical datum”.

We can therefore affirm that the basic premise of the third solution suggested by Jean Gutton, that of faith, is not so much belief by force, but rather leaving open the possibility that what is written in the sources may be true.

3. Where was Jesus born?

Because the Third Quest on the ‘historical Jesus’ insists on analyzing the historical, religious and linguistic context in which he lived, I would like to make a few comments in this regard.

Where was Jesus From? I have heard some say that he was “Israeli”; and others that he was “Palestinian”.  In fact neither of the two terms is correct, since Israelis are citizens of the modern-day state of Israel (and they can be Jewish, Arabs, Muslims or Christians, etc), and Palestinians are the modern Arabic-speaking inhabitants of the region that we today know as Palestine.

Jesus, therefore, was neither Israeli (if anything Israelite) nor a Palestinian because, in his era, Palestine was not known by that name. This name was given to the area by the emperor Hadrian in 135 A.D., after the end of the third Jewish-Roman war, when the ex-province of Judah, by then stripped of its Jewish inhabitants, was re-baptized Syria Palestina. The Romans’ changing the name of the area to Palestine would have been seen as a slight by the Jews because Palestine was where the Philistines, a Indo-European language population hostile to the Jews, lived. Palestine up until that point had been a thin strip of land corresponding more or less to today’s Gaza strip and was where the group of five City-States, the ancient Philistine Pentapolis, was located. 

At the beginning of the first century of our era, then, what had been the ancient Kingdom of Israel and later divided into two kingdoms, Israel & Judah, had ceased to exist as an independent State. At that time, it was divided between Judah, a stronghold of more Orthodox Judaism immediately subject to Rome and governed by a praefectus, and the other two historical regions, Galilee and Samaria. The latter, a central plateau which is today known as Palestine, was inhabited by Samaritans, descendants from Asian colonies who were brought in by the Assyrians in the 5th century BC, when the Kingdom of Israel was conquered. 

The nobles of that area, in fact, were deported while the working class was left behind and mingled with the newcomers, giving rise to a cult that was at first syncretic but later became monotheistic yet different from Jewish monotheism. While the Jews considered themselves the legitimate descendants of the patriarchs and custodians of the Covenant with Yahweh, of the law and of worship professed in the Temple of Jerusalem, the Samaritans believed the same thing about themselves and had their own center of worship in a temple on Mount Garizim, near the city of Sichem-Sicar.

4. The Kingdom of Galilee at the time of Jesus

In regards to Galilee, this was a zone of mixed population (it is still today in the State of Israel; half Arab and half Jewish); Jewish villages and cities (such as Nazareth or Cana) rose up next to Greco-Roman “pagan” cities, such as Sepphoris, Tiberias, Caesarea of Philippi. The population of the region, even those of Jewish faith and culture, were stigmatized by the inhabitants of Judah, who considered themselves more pure and refined than the rude and quarrelsome Galileans (whom it must be said on the basis of recent archeological discoveries, were no different from their brothers in the south in terms of the level of their observance).  

In regards to Jesus, we have heard several times, as written in the Gospels, that “nothing good can come from Nazareth or Galilee.”  Among other things, not only the Gospels but also the few Rabbinic writings still in existence from this time tell us that the Galileans were also mocked for the way in which they spoke. Hebrew and Aramaic (the lingua franca spoken throughout the Middle East at the time, even by Israelites following their deportation to Babylon in 587 B.C., year of the conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the first temple by Nabuchadnezzar), like all Semitic languages, have many guttural letters and aspirated or laryngeal sounds. And the Galileans uttered many words in a manner deemed amusing or vulgar by other Jews.  For example, the name יְהוֹשֻׁעַ , Yehoshu’a, was pronounced as Yeshu, hence the Greek transcription Ιησούς (Yesoús), which then became the Latin Iesus and ultimately the English Jesus.

Galilee in any case was a vassal kingdom of Rome and was ruled by Herod the Great, a pagan king literally placed on the throne by Augustus, for whom he was essentially a henchman. Herod, known for both his cruelty and his wisdom, had done everything to win the sympathies of the Jewish people (and also everything to alienate them), but he was never accepted by them, especially because he himself was not Jewish.

Among other things, he had enlarged and embellished the Temple of Jerusalem which was re-built by the Jewish people when they returned from the Babylonian captivity. The completion of the structure was still in progress while Jesus was alive and was only completed a few years prior to 70 A.D., when the shrine itself was razed to the ground in the destruction of Jerusalem by Romans under the leadership of Titus.

Nearby, more to the northeast, on the eastern waters of the lake of Galilee, a confederation of ten cities (the Decapolis) represented a Hellenized cultural island.

5. The land and the “fellow citizens” of Jesus: The Schools of Judaism

It should be remembered at this point that Judaism was nowhere near a uniform block in Israel at the time.  The primary sects, or schools, were the following:

  • The Sadducees (in Hebrew: צַּדּוֹקִים, ṣaddōqīm): They were named after their ancestor ṣaddōq, and formed the priestly class and elite of the time. They were rich religious officials, assigned to service in the temple, who didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead or the existence of angels, demons and spirits and believed that the only law to be followed was the written Law, contained in the Torah (תוֹרָה), or the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch).
  •  The Pharisees (in Hebrew: פְּרוּשִׁים, perūšīm, which means “separated”): They were pious observants, accustomed to even focus on the minutiae of the law itself, which for them wasn’t only the written law (the Torah), but also the oral law the halakhah (הֲלָכָה), which extended to the most varied actions of civil and religious life and even dealt with complicated norms for the sacrifices of worship to the washing of dishes before meals. The Pharisees were very similar to the ultra-Orthodox Jews of today, of whom they are practically the forerunners. They defined themselves as “separated” because they considered themself adversaries of everything that was not purely Jewish, or in other words themselves. It is enough to think that the “people” were defined by them as עַם הָאָרֶץ (‛am ha-areṣ, people of the earth, in a derogatory sense).
  • The Herodians, whose sensus fidei is not entirely clear but whose loyalty to King Herod is very clear. They were probably very close to the Sadducees because the latter were the ruling elite of both Herod and the Romans, strongly determined to maintain the privileges deriving from the status quo.
  • The doctors of the law, or scribes (in Hebrew: סופרים, ṣōfarīm). They progressively codified everything about which it was possible to legislate. For example, at the time of Jesus the most debated topic in the two primary rabbinical schools of the great masters Hillel and Shammai was whether it was lawful to eat an egg laid by a hen on a Saturday.
  • The zealots(whose name in English derives from the Greek ζηλωτής, zelotés, but who in Hebrew were defined as קנאים, or qana’īm: both terms, the Greek and the Hebrew, mean “followers” and refer to the zeal with which this group adhered to the doctrines of Judaism, even politically. Among Jesus’ disciples there is one called Simon the Canaanite, an attribute that does not refer to his geographical origin, but to the fact that he belonged to the group of qana’īm, or in other words the zealots. The zealots were called sicarii by the Romans, because of the daggers (sicæ) hidden under the cloaks with which they killed those who were discovered to have broken the precepts of Jewish law.
  • The Essenes, never mentioned in the Hebrew or Christian scriptures but about whom Flavius Josephus, Philo, Pliny and others have spoken. They were a real religious association, concentrated in particular around the Dead Sea, near the oasis of En Gedi (the already mentioned Qumran, which they called Yaḥad, or in other words communities). They lived in celibacy, rigidly separated from the rest of the world, and they rejected the cult of the Temple and the other Jewish sects as unclean. In order to be part of this sect, you needed to undergo a novitiate. They were literally fanatics about ritual purity (there were countless ritual baths in the Qumran), and they were averse to women.  Private property did not exist for them and it was forbidden to bear arms. It has been hypothesized that Jesus and John the Baptist were Essenes, but this contrasts with the universality of their message (being open even to women, something that would likely have been unacceptable for the Essenes).

These, therefore, were the large groups into which Judaism was divided at the time of Jesus. Following the great catastrophe of 70 A.D. and 132 A.D., the only group that survived, from a doctrinal point of view, were the Pharisees, from whom modern Judaism descends.

It should also be said that the people, the common people, although largely sympathizing with the Pharisees, were, as we have demonstrated, considered by the Pharisees to be heinous. It was precisely towards the people who were mocked by the priestly spiritual and intellectual cast of Israel that John the Baptist and then Jesus would direct their attention. It was that very people who would be the first to believe in the message of the Nazarean, against whom, however, the Pharisees, Scribes and Sadduceans would unite, although they had been enemies to each other. 

6. Waiting for a Messiah

The totality of ancient Israel is a cauldron in which a very particular and devout waiting was boiling.  Waiting for whom? For a liberator, one anointed by the almighty God as Moses had been, someone whom God himself had raised up to free his people from slavery and from foreign dominion. This time, however, it was believed his reign would not end because this Messiah (מָשִׁיחַ, Mašīaḥ in Herbrew, Χριστός, Christós in Greek: both terms indicating “anointed”, or anointed by God in the same way that the Kings like Saul and his successor David were anointed) would not only be a prophet but, as evidenced in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in the expectations of the Essenes of Zumran, a shepherd-king and a priest.

In the years before the birth of the Nazarean, this waiting became even more and more anxious: everywhere there were supposed Messiahs and with them revolts, systemically repressed with blood (e.g. Judas of Galilee in the year 6-7 B.C.). But there were also many pious communities who, by virtue of a very specific prophecy, were awaiting the coming of a liberator. We also know that during this period of great stability for the Roman empire but fervent expectation for the people of Israel, everyone’s attention in that small corner of the world was focused on the imminent arrival of a liberator: had it always been like that?

In fact, the anticipation and waiting for a ruler of the world had been going on for centuries. The first mention of this is found in the book of Genesis [8]. With time, therefore, the idea of someone anointed by God to govern Israel intensified and became more and more clear: this anointed one, this Messiah, would be a descendant of Judah, through King David.

However in 587 B.C. the first great disappointment took place: the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed the temple, plundered all the sacred objects, deported the population of Judah to Babylon and put an end to the dynasty of kings who descended from David. Here, however, a prophet named Daniel, the last prophet of the Old Testament, prophesied that the Messiah would indeed come. In fact his prophecy is called Magna Prophetia: in it (chapter 2), he proclaims that “God from heaven will raise up a kingdom that will never be destroyed and that will not be transferred to another people: it will crush and annihilate all the other kingdoms, and it will last forever”. 

And that’s not all: in chapter 7 he specifies that the one who will come will be like a “Son of Man’” (in the Gospel of Matthew, the gospel directed at the Jewish communities in Palestine, Jesus uses a similar expression “Son of Man” thirty times, which had previously only been mentioned in Daniel).

In chapter 9, then the prophecy is also expressed in temporal terms.

“Seventy weeks* are decreed for your people and for your holy city: Then transgression will stop and sin will end, guilt will be expiated, Everlasting justice will be introduced, vision and prophecy ratified, and a holy of holies will be anointed. Know and understand: From the utterance of the word that Jerusalem was to be rebuilt*.  Until there is an anointed ruler, there shall be seven weeks.

As you can see, the prophecy cited above is extremely specific. However, the exact translation in English of the Hebrew term שָׁבֻעִ֨ים (šavū‛īm, “šavū‛” indicating the number 7 and “īm” as a masculine plural ending) should not be “weeks” (which is שבועות, or šavū‛ōt, where “ōt” stands for a feminine plural ending), but “septenary” or seven years: and thus the passage actually refers to seventy times seven years.

The Jewish contemporaries of Jesus understood this passage correctly, but scholars of his era were unable to understand the exact task of Daniel’s times: when did the count of seventy times seven years begin? Well, recent discoveries in Qumran have enabled scholars such as Hugh Schonfield, a renowned specialist in the Dead Sea Scrolls, to demonstrate that not only were the Hebrew scriptures already perfectly formed in the 1st century and identical to those which we read today, but even the Essenes, like many of their other contemporaries, had calculated the times of the Magna Prophetia.

For them, seven times seventy years (490 years) began in 587 B.C., the beginning of the exile in Babylon, and ended in 26 A.D., the beginning of the Messianic age. So much so that starting around that date archeological excavations have demonstrated an increase in housing and construction activity in Qumran. Yet it wasn’t only Jews in the land of Israel who were smouldering in anticipation, a waiting that filled them with hope and turmoil. Tacitus and Suetonius too, the former in his Historiae and the latter in his Vita di Vespasiano (Life of Vespasian) report that many throughout the East were waiting for a ruler who, according to their scriptures, would come from Judah.

7. A star in the East? The famous “comet”

The East itself provides us with another useful element which helps us to understand how the period of Messianic waiting was so fervent between the two eras: the fact that, even in other cultures, the coming of that “ruler” who had been spoken of as far as Rome, was also expected. Babylonian and Persian astrologists, in fact, were expecting him around 6 or 7 B.C. [9].

But why exactly that interval? Because of the rising of a star, as we know from the gospel of Matthew (chapter 2). But did a star actually rise? Kepler seems to be the first to answer this question in 1603 when he observed a very luminous phenomenon: not a comet, but the approach or conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the Pisces constellation. Kepler then made some calculations and determined that the same conjunction would have occurred in 7 B.C.  Then a very old rabbinical commentary was uncovered in which it was stressed that the coming of the Messiah should coincide with the moment in which that astral conjunction took place.

No one, however, gave credit to Kepler’s intuition at the time because then people still believed that Jesus was born in the year zero. It was only in the 18th century that another scholar, Friederich Christian Münter, a Lutheran and a Mason, deciphered a commentary on the book of Daniel, the same one as the “seventy times seven years”, in which the Jewish belief which Kepler had brought to light was confirmed by yet another source.

We would have to wait, however, until the 19th century to have confirmation of the astronomical phenomenon observed by Kepler, first by 19th century astronomists, and then thanks to the publication of two important documents. The first document, the Planetary Table, was discovered in 1902 and was an Egyptian papyrus in which the planetary movements are recorded with accuracy and in particular, by direct observation, the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction in the constellation of Pisces which is found to have been very bright. The second document was the Sippar Stellar Calendar, a terracotta tablet of Babylonian origin written in Cuneiform, where the movement of the stars was demonstrated in the year 7 B.C., a year during which, according to the Babylonians, this conjunction would have occurred three times (May 29, October 1 and December 5), while the same event usually occurs every 794 years.

Therefore, since in the symbology of the Babylonians, Jupiter represented the planet of the rulers of the world, Saturn represented the protector planet of Israel and the constellation of Pisces was a sign of the end of time, it is not so absurd to think that the magi [10] of the East, having had the opportunity to predict it with extraordinary precision, were expecting the coming of something special in Judah.

8. Nomen omen: Jesus’ origins

Our journey in the story of the man Jesus obviously must begin with his name, given that nomen omen, the name is the sign, especially in the world that Jesus came from, that of ancient Israel.  In Hebrew the names Jesus and Joshua are identical in pronunciation and writing:  יְהוֹשֻׁעַ,or Yehoshu’a. The meaning of this name is “God saves”.

Jesus was Jewish, and even more specifically “Judean” : he was part of the tribe of Judah, although he lived most of his life in Galilee.  According to the gospels, he was a descendant of the King of David through his father Joseph, a paternity which, for Christians is putative because they believe that Jesus was born of a virgin named Mary who became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit after an announcement by an angel, when she was already betrothed to Joseph. (For Christians God is not one but three persons, and this Trinity is made up of three persons of the same substance: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit).

9. From Judah to Bethlehem: Jesus’ birth

Bethlehem today is a city in the West Bank and is no longer very bucolic nor does it have much that might resemble a manger. But two thousand years ago, it was a very small village of a few hundred souls. Is this really where Jesus was born, even though his family lived in Nazareth?

We will mention later on the census which was ordered by Caesar Augustus and which contains one of the answers to this question. Furthemore, Bethlehem, though small, was known for being the homeland of King David and thus would be an appropriate place for the long awaited Messiah of the people of Israel to be born [11]. Therefore, both the Israelites and their neighbors in the East knew not only the time but also the place in which the “deliverer” of the Jewish people would come into the world.

It is interesting to note how the name of this place, made up of two different Hebrew terms, signifies: ‘house of bread” in Hebrew (בֵּֽית = bayt o beṯ: house; לֶ֣חֶם = leḥem: bread); “house of meat” in Arabic (ﺑﻴﺖ = bayt o beyt, house; لَحْمٍ = laḥm, meet); “house of fish” in ancient South-Arabian languages. All the languages citied are of Semitic origin and in these languages, from the same three letter root, it is possible to obtain many words connected to the original meaning of the root of origin. In our case, the compound word Bethlehem, we have two roots: b-y-t which gives origin to Bayt or Beth and l-ḥ-m which gives origin to Leḥem or Laḥm. In all cases Bayt/Beth means house, but Laḥm/Leḥem changes meaning according to the language.

The answer can be found in the origin of the populations to whom the languages belonged. The Jews, like the Aramaens and other Semitic populations in the Northwest, lived in the so-called Fertile Crescent, a vast area between Palestine and Mesopotamia where it was possible to practice agriculture, and as a result they were a sedentary people. Their main source of subsistence was therefore bread, together with the fruits of the earth’s labor. 

The Arabs were a nomadic or semi-nomadic people of the Northern and central part of the Arabian Peninsula, which was predominantly desert. Their main source of subsistence, therefore, was from hunting and breeding animals, and thus meat was their primary food. The South Arabians, on the other hand, lived on the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula, and their primary source of subsistence was fish. From this, it is easy to understand how the same word, in three different Semitic languages, could signify three different types of food.

Therefore, we can see how for different peoples, Bethlehem has a meaning that is apparently different but in actuality universal: not only does it mean the house of bread, meat or fish, but the home of the true food, that which we cannot do without, that upon which subsistence itself depends and without which it is impossible to live.

Curiously, Jesus, when speaking of himself said “My flesh is the real food; my blood is the real drink.”   (John 6, 55). This linguistic comparison is an example of how philology can offer an important contribution to the figure of the “historical Jesus” and to understanding his place within the cultural context of the time.

And now we come to another point: beyond all the philological and exegetical speculations, was Jesus really born in Bethlehem?

History has passed on to us that already by the mid-second century Justin, originally from Palestine, was writing about the cave/stable of Bethlehem, the memory of which had been handed down from father to son for several generations. Even Origen, an author in the third century, confirms that in Bethlehem both Christians and non-Christians knew of the location of this same cave. 

But why do we speak of “memory”? Because from 132 onwards, after the Roman-Jewish wars, the emperor Hadrian wanted to build pagan temples directly on top of the places sacred to those of the ancient faith of the region, with the objective of erasing Jewish and Judeo-Christian places from memory in the new province of Palestine [12]. This is confirmed by Jerome [13], author of the first Latin translation of the entire Bible, the Vulgate (Jerome lived 40 years in Bethlehem), and Cyril of Jerusalem [14].

Just as in Jerusalem, where Hadrian erected statues to Jupiter and Venus on the same sites as the sanctuaries honoring the death and resurrection of Jesus (Jerusalem in the meantime had been rebuilt with the name Aelia Capitolina), in Bethlehem Hadrian planted a forest sacred to Tammuz, or Adonis. It was however, thanks to the strategy of damnatio memoriae (condemnation of memory) that the pagan symbols became clues to find the traces of the buried sanctuaries, whose memory had never been able to be erased.

Thus, the first emperor, Constantine, and his mother Elena were able to discover the exact points in which the primitive domus ecclesiæ (house-churches) were located [15], and which subsequently were transformed into churches where the memories and relics of the life of Jesus of Nazareth were venerated and kept.

10. Chronology of Jesus’ life

For more in depth information about the life of Jesus, I refer you of course to the Gospels and to the books we cite in the bibliography. I will provide you here with some basic biographical points, beginning with the birth of the Nazarean.

Christmas: does what was told in the Gospels make sense?

From the Gospel of Luke (chapter 2) we know that the birth of Jesus coincides with a census ordered throughout the lands of Caesar Augustus:

At that time, Emperor Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Roman Empire. When this first census took place, Quirinius was the governor of Syria. Everyone, then went to register himself, each to his own hometown.

What do we know about this? From what is read in the seventh, eighth and tenth line of the transcription of Res gestae of Augustus located at the Ara Pacis in Rome, we learn that Caesar Octavian Augustus ordered a census of the entire Roman population three times: in the years 28 B.C., 8 B.C. and 14 B.C.

In ancient times, taking a census of the entire territory would have required a certain amount of time to be effectively carried out. And here is another instance where Luke gives us a clue: Quirinius was a governor of Syria when this first “census” was taken. And P. Sulpicius Quirinius was the governor of Syria most likely from the year 6-7 A.D. There are conflicting opinions by historians on this question; some in fact hypothesize that Quirinius had a previous mandate [16] from the years 8-6 B.C.; others translate the word “primo (which, having a neutral ending in Latin and Greek, could also be an adverb) as“before” and hence “before Qurinius was governor of Syria.”

Both hypotheses are admissible, and therefore what is told in the gospels about the census that took place at the time of Jesus’ birth [17] is likely. We add, furthermore, that the protocol of those censuses required you to go to your village of origin, and not to the place where you currently were living (a sort of early distinction between residence and domicile); it is plausible therefore that Joseph had gone to Bethlehem in order to be counted for the census.

11. Christmas Day

Do we have any other temporal clues? Yes, the death of Herod in 4 B.C. since from what is told in the gospels, there had to be at least a two year period between the birth of Jesus and the death of the king, which would coincide precisely with 6 A.D.

As for the dies natalis, the true and actual birth date of Jesus, for a long time it was hypothesized that this was set at December 25th in a subsequent era, in order to coincide with the dies Solis Invicti, a festival of pagan origin probably associated with the cult of Mithras, and thus replace a pagan holiday with a Christian one.

Recent discoveries, again from the Qumran, have enabled us to establish that perhaps this was not the whole story and we have another reason for celebrating Christmas on December 25th.

In fact, we know from the gospel of Luke (the richest in narrative details about how the birth of Jesus happened) that Mary became pregnant when her cousin Elizabeth was in her sixth month. Christians in the West always celebrate the Annunciation of Mary on March 25, or nine months before Christmas. Christians in the East, for their part, celebrate the Annunciation to Zechariah (father of John the Baptist and husband of Elizabeth) on September 23rd.

Luke goes even more into detail. Luke tells us that when Zechariah discovered that his wife, advanced in age like himself, was pregnant, he was serving in the temple, because he was of the priestly caste and more specifically the class of Abijah.

However Luke himself, writing at the time when the Temple was still in operation and the priestly castes were still performing their perennial rotations, does not provide us with the date, believing the time that the class of Abijah was due to serve to be common knowledge. Yet, countless fragments of the book of Jubilees found in Qumran enabled scholars such as Annie Jaubert and the Israeli Shemarjahu Tiamon to precisely reconstruct that the class of Abijah’s shift would have taken place twice per year: the first from the 8th to the 14th of the third month in the Hebrew calendar, and the second from the 24th to the 30th of the eight month in the Hebrew calendar, corresponding to the last ten days of September. The second shift would be perfectly consistent with the Eastern feast of the Annunciation to Zechariah on September 23rd and is six months from March 25th, which could lead us to suppose that the birth of Jesus actually did occur in the last ten days of December, perhaps not actually on the 25th but around that time.

12. Jesus’ early years and the beginning of his preaching

Let’s continue our excursus in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. We have seen that approximately in 6 B.C. two women were pregnant: Elizabeth, the wife of the priest Zechariah of the class of Abijah, and her cousin Mary, who according to the Christian scriptures was a virgin and betrothed to a man of the house of David called Joseph.

Joseph, because of the census ordered by the emperor Augustus (who requested that men return to the city of origin of their family in order to be counted), went to Bethlehem, the city of his ancestor David, and his wife Mary gave birth to a son called Jesus.

The gospels then tell us that the magi or wise men came from the East after having seen a star in order to worship the new ruler of the world foretold by the ancient scriptures. They also tell us that King Herod, having heard that the prophecy about the Messiah, the new King of Israel, was about to be fulfilled, decided to kill all male children aged two and under (an event which we find evidence of in Flavio Giuseppe but which no one else recounts. However, as Giuseppe Ricciotti highlights, in a relatively sparsely populated context such as Bethlehem and its surroundings and especially in a time in which the life of a child had very little value, it was difficult to imagine that someone would take the time to record the violent deaths of some poor infants who were sons of “nobodies”)

Having come to know of Herod’s intentions (the gospel of Matthew speaks of an angel who warns Joseph in a dream), the father and his recently born son escaped to Egypt where they stayed for several years, until the death of Herod (therefore after 4 B.C.).

Except for Luke’s reference about Jesus where he mentioned how at age twelve during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Jesus got separated from his parents who found him after three days discussing questions of doctrine with the doctors of the Temple, nothing else is known about his infancy and his life as a child in Nazareth until his entrance onto the public scene of Israel. This can be situated around the year 27-28 A.D. when he was approximately thirty-three years old, preceded by a few years by John the Baptist, who supposedly began his ministry several months or a year beforeJesus.

We can go back to the time of the beginning of Jesus’ preaching thanks to a clue contained in the gospel of John (the most exact and accurate gospel from a chronological, historical and geographic point of view): arguing with Jesus in the Temple, the Jewish authorities objected: “Are you going to build it again in 3 days?” they asked him. It has taken forty-six years to build this temple!” If we calculate that Herod the Great began the work of rebuilding the Temple in 20-19 B.C. and we consider forty-six years of the evangelical phase, we find ourselves around the year 27-28 A.D.

However, the ministry of John the Baptist occurred slightly before Jesus’ ministry and, according to the evangelists, John was nothing more than a precursor to the man from Galilee, the true Messiah of Israel. John, whom we believe could have been an Essene earlier in his life, certainly separated himself, as previously shown, from the rigid elitist doctrine of the sect of Qumran.

He was preaching that a baptism of penitence, by immersion in the Jordan River (in a zone not far away from the Qumran), would help prepare you for the coming of the liberator, the Messiah king. Of himself he says: “I am the voice of someone shouting in the desert: Make a straight path for the Lord to travel!” (Gospel of John 1,23). He was, however, killed shortly afterwards by Herod Antipas [18], tetrarch of Galilee and son of Herod the Great.

John’s death did not prevent Jesus from continuing his ministry. The Nazarean preached peace, love for your neighbors and the coming of a new era of justice and peace, the Kingdom of God, which wouldn’t however be as his Jewish contemporaries had envisioned it (and as had been anticipated by the same prophecies of the Messiah). In other words, Jesus’ kingdom would not be an earthly kingdom in which Israel would have freed itself from its oppressors and dominated other nations, the Gentiles, but rather a kingdom for the poor, humble and meek.

Jesus’ preaching, about which we will go into more detail in the next paragraph, at first seemed to be a great success, especially because as the gospels tell us, it was accompanied by many prodigious signs (multiplication of bread and loaves for thousands of people, the healing of lepers, cripples, blind and deaf, resurrection from the dead, the transformation of water into wine). However, Jesus had setbacks or at any rate encountered significant difficulties, when he himself began to suggest that he was much more than just a man, or proclaimed himself the son of God.

Furthermore, he presented himself as an opponent to the religious elite of his day (the Pharisees, the Scribes, whom he had no qualms about calling “vipers” and “vultures)  in proclaiming that man was more important than the Sabbath and sabbatical rest (when for the Pharisees, the Sabbath was almost more important than God) and that he himself was even more important than the temple itself.  He was also disliked by the Sadducees, with whom he was no less harsh, and who, along with the Herodians, were his greatest adversaries, since Jesus was loved by the people and they feared that the people would rise up against them and against the Romans.

All of this lasted around three years (there are three Jewish Passovers mentioned by the Evangelist John in his writings about Jesus, and as we’ve mentioned, John was the most precise in returning to the inaccuracies of the other three evangelists and in pointing out details which had been neglected from a chronological point of view). After this the Nazarean went to Jerusalem for the last time, specifically in order to celebrate the Passover [19]. There, he found waiting for him not only a festive crowd but also the Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees and Herodians, who conspired to kill him, first having him arrested by taking advantage of the betrayal of one of his disciples (Judas Iscariot) and then handing him over to the Romans. After a show trial, the prosecutor, or praefectus, Pontius Pilate, washed his hands of Jesus and had him crucified.

13. Jesus’ death on the cross

All the evangelists agree upon the fact that Jesus’ death on the cross occurred on a Friday (the parasceve) within the Passover holiday. Giuseppe Ricciotti, while listing a series of possibilities all analyzed by scholars, reached the conclusion that the exact date of this event in the Hebrew calendar was on the 14th day of the lunar month of Nisan (Friday April 7) in 30 A.D. Therefore if Jesus was born two years before the death of Herod [20], he was approximately thirty years old (plausibly thirty-two or thirty-three) at the beginning of his public life, and was approximately 35 years old when he died.

The gospels tell us that Jesus suffered the most atrocious death, a death reserved for slaves, assassins, thieves, and those who weren’t Roman citizens: crucifixion. And furthermore, this occurred after undergoing an equally terrible torture which, according to Roman custom, preceded the crucifixion: flagellation (described by Horace as horribile flagellum) inflicted with a terrible tool called a flagrum, a whip equipped with metal balls and bone tools that lacerated the skin and tore away pieces of flesh.

The cross used could be one of two types: the crux commissa, shared like a T, or the crux immissa, shaped like a dagger [21].  From what we read in the gospels, once Jesus was condemned, he was forced to carry the cross (most probably the cross-beam of the crux immissa, the patibulum) to high ground just outside the walls of Jerusalem (i.e. Golgotha where today the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre is located) where, according to Roman protocol, he was stripped.

We can uncover other details of his punishment by understanding the Roman custom of crucifying those condemned to death: they were bound and nailed with their arms stretched to the patibulum and raised on the vertical pole that had been set in place. The feet were bound and nailed to the vertical pole, on which hung, at the height of the buttocks, a sort of support seat.

Death would have been slow, extremely slow, and accompanied by atrocious suffering. The victim, raised from the ground by no more than a half-meter, was completely naked and could remain hanging for hours, or even days, shaken by tetanic cramps, retching and the inability to breath properly, given that blood could not flow to the limbs stretched out to the point of exhaustion or to the heart or lungs which were unable to open properly.

We know from Christian authors, however, that Jesus’ agony didn’t last more than a few hours (from the sixth hour to the ninth hour), probably because of the huge loss of blood (hypovolemic shock) due to flagellation and that after death, Jesus was placed in a new tomb, excavated from a rock near the location of the crucifixion (a few meters away).

Here, obviously, is where the story of “historical Jesus” ends and that of “Christ of faith” begins, given that, as narrated by the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead after three days, appearing from time to time primarily to women (which was unheard of at the time when a testimony of a woman meant nothing), to his mother, to the disciples and then, before rising to heaven to the right hand of the father, to more than fifty people who were still alive, as Paul of Tarsus explains, at the time in which Paul wrote his letters (circa 50 A.D.).

14. Jesus’ message: the kèrygma

The story of the “historical Jesus” is the story of a failure, at least an apparent one, perhaps even the greatest failure in history. In contrast to others who have marked the course of history and who have remained imprinted in the memory of posterity, Jesus did practically nothing exceptional from a merely “human” or macrohistorical point of view: he neither led armies to the conquest of new territories, nor did he defeat hordes of enemies, accumulate women and treasures, slaves and servants, write literary works or paint or sculpt any works of art.

Considering the way in which he ended his earthly existence, in mockery, in scorn, in violent death and anonymous burial, how was a “bandit killed by the Romans”, to quote a friend who asked me this question, able to become the cornerstone of history? It would seem that what they have said of him “the stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Acts 4,11) has occurred. Isn’t this a paradox?

If we consider the course of events of his life from a “microhistorical” point of view however, in terms of the influence that he had on the people around him, on those whom he cured, moved, struck or changed, then it becomes easier to believe in another thing that he used to say to his followers “You will do even greater things”. In fact, it was his disciples and apostles who began the missionary work and spread his message throughout the world. When Jesus was alive the message itself, “the gospel”, the good news, had not crossed the borders of Palestine and indeed seemed destined to die in the same way that his existence was terminated.

However this new and unstoppable form, that at the same time was small and hidden, began to ferment like leaven in that small corner of the East in a completely inexplicable way given that, in the testimony of Paul of Tarsus, the difficulty in spreading the gospels was not only because of the paradox contained in them, proclaiming that the little ones, the humble, children and the ignorant were blessed – something unheard of at the time – but also in having to identify the gospel itself with a person who died in the most absolute ignominy and who then claimed to be resurrected. Paul, in fact, defines this announcement, the cross, as scandalous for the Jews, who were asking for signs, and as foolish for the Greeks who were seeking wisdom (first Letter to the Corinthians 1 21-22).

As discussed previously, this is not the place to deal with this topic, since the objective of this article is simply a look at the “historical Jesus” and not the ‘Christ of faith’.  However, it is now established that the one is incomprehensible without the other, and thus I will provide some details on the focal message of Jesus of Nazareth, the heart of the Gospel (εὐαγγέλιον, euanghélion,  literally good news) or the kèrygma.

The term is of Greek origin (κήρυγμα, from the verb κηρύσσω, kēryssō, or to yell, scream like a town crier, spreading news). And the news is this: the proclamation of the life, death, resurrection and glorious return of Jesus of Nazareth, called Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit. This work constitutes, according to Christians, a direct intervention of God in history: God who incarnates himself as a man, who lowers himself to the level of his creatures in order to raise them up in dignity as his children, to free them from the burden of sin (a new Passover) and death and to give them eternal life, by virtue of the sacrifice of his only-born son.

This process of the lowering of God to man was defined as κένωσις (kénōsis), also a Greek work that literally indicates “emptying”: God lowers and empties himself, he divests himself of his divine privileges and attributes in order to give them, to share them, with man, in a movement between heaven and earth that presupposes, following a descent, an ascent from earth to heaven: théosis (θέοσις), the elevation of human nature that becomes divine because, according to Christian doctrine, a baptized man is Christ himself [22]. In practice, the lowering of God leads to the apotheosis of man.

The concept of kèrygma constitutes, from a historical point of view, a very precious piece of information to help us understand how from the beginning of Christianity, this announcement and this identification of Jesus of Nazareth with God was present in the words and writings of his disciples and apostles, this itself being the very reason for Jesus’ condemnation to death by the most important figures in Judaism at the time.

We find a trace of this, in fact, not only in all the Gospels but above all and especially in the letters of Paul (which were written even earlier: the first Letter to the Thessalonians was written in 52 A.D. [23]. In these letters, Paul of Tarsus writes of what he himself has previously learned, that Jesus of Nazareth was born, died and rose from the dead for the sins of the world, according to scripture.

There is no doubt, therefore, that the identification of “historical Jesus” with a “Christ of faith” is not at all late but immediate and derives from the same words used by Jesus of Nazareth to define himself and to attribute to his person all the Messianic prophecies and images throughout the history of the people of Israel.

Another interesting aspect is the method, the pedagogy of the Nazarean; he “educates’ (etymologically the latin term educĕre implies leading from one place to another, and by extension to draw out) like a teacher. In fact, from an analysis of his words, his gestures, his actions, Jesus appears to not only want to perform a work of his own but desires that those who wish to follow him do it with him, learn to act like him, following him in his ascent towards God, in a constant dialogue that is concretized in the symbols used, in the places, and in the contents of the scriptures. He seems to want to say, or rather says: “Learn from me”. The phrase cited above is found in a verse from the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus invites his followers to be similar to him to be gentle and humble in spirit, in gentleness and humbleness, in not reacting with violence or a lack of respect, his figure is also consistent from a literary point of view, not just an intellectual one: firm, constant until death, never contradictory. Jesus teaches his followers not only not to kill but to give life to others; not only not to steal, but to deprive yourself for others; not only to love your friends but even to love your enemies; not only to be good people but to become like God. And in doing so, he does not indicate an abstract model, someone far away in time and space or a deity high up in the heavens; he directly indicates himself. He says “Do as I do”.

Curiously, even his wanderings in the land of Israel seem to be an expression of his mission which begins with his baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist, in the lowest point of the territory (the banks of the Jordan River around Jericho) and culminates in what was thought of in the collective imaginary of the Jewish people as the highest point: Jerusalem. Jesus goes down like Jordan (whose Hebrew name ירדן, Yarden, means “he who goes down”) towards the Dead sea, a barren, low and desert-like place, in order to lead upwards, where he would be “lifted up” and “draw everyone to him” (John, 12:32) but in a completely different way from what would have been expected of him.

His wandering finds its meaning in the idea of a Hebrew pilgrimage towards the Holy Land, which was carried out during major holidays while singing “songs of the ascensions” while ascending from the plain of Esdraelon or, more frequently, from the road of Jericho through the mountains of Judah.  By extension, this idea of a pilgrimage of “ascension” is found in the modern concept of עלייה (‘aliyah), emigration or pilgrimage to Israel by Jews (and also Christians) who come to Israel to visit the country or live there (and which is defined as עולים, ‘ōlīm  – from the same root ‘al – or those who go up”). In fact, the name of the Israeli airline company El Al (אל על), meansupwards” (and with a double sense: up is the sky but up (or high) is also the Land of Israel, and Jerusalem in particular.

Finally, the uprooting of the concept of “ruler of the world” which his contemporaries were waiting for, is realized in the so-called Sermon of the Mount, the programmatic discourse of the mission of Jesus of Nazareth: they are blessed and therefore happy, not the rich, but the poor in spirit; not the strong, but the weak; not the powerful, but the humble; not those who make war, but those who make peace.

And last but not least, the great message of consolation to humanity: God is father. Not a collective father, however, in the sense of a protector of one people against another people, but a tender father, a “Dad” (Jesus called him by this name in Aramaic: אבא, abba) for every person, as the Biblical scholar Jean Carmignac explains [24]:

For Jesus, God is essentially Father, as he is Love (1 John 4:8). Jesus is above all “Son” of God such that no one would imagine before him, and so God is for him “Father” in the strictest sense of the term. This paternity of the son and this sonship of the Son also implies participation of a single divine nature. [-]

This topic occupies a central place in Jesus’ preaching: that the incarnation of the son has the purpose of giving to men “the right to become God’s children” (John 1: 12) and that his message could be defined as a revelation of the Father (John 1:18) in order to teach humanity that we are all children of God (1 John 3:1). 

This truth assumes, in the mouth of Jesus, such importance as to become the basis of his teaching: that the purpose of doing good works is the glory of the Father (Matthew: 5: 16), everyone forgives each other as the Father forgives you (Matthew 6:14-15); Mark 11:25-26), the entrance into heaven is reserved for those who do what the Father in heaven wants them to do  (Matthew: 7,21), the fullness of moral life consists in being merciful just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6, 36) and perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5: 48) [—]

An evident consequence derives from this paternity of God: having the same “Father”, humans are actually brothers who should love each other and treat each other this way. This is a fundamental principle that inspires the morality and spirituality of Christianity and that the Gospel has already taken care of proclaiming explicitly: You are all brothers [-] because you have only the one Father in heaven” (Matthew 23: 8-9). 

And thus we conclude our journey in search of the “historical Jesus”, with the awareness that for both believers and non-believers, his figure will forever be one of the greatest and most fascinating mysteries in all of history.

[1] Jean Guitton developed his three “solutions” by reflecting on the three phases of historiographic research on Jesus of Nazareth: the First, Second, and Third Quest. We will return to this question in the next article.

[2] Some examples of progress in regards to the discovery of a “Historical Jesus,” progressively separate from the “Christ of faith” starting in the seventeenth century, will be provided in an article dedicated to historiographic research, methodology and sources on Jesus.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ. The Curse of Christianity, Adelphi, 1977, p. 73.

[4] Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth. Philosophical Papers, Cambridge, 1991.

[5] Benedetto Croce, Perché non possiamo non dirci cristiani, Centro Pannunzio, Torino, 2008 (p. 14).

[6] The Third Quest, which therefore follows a First and a Second, is the prevailing historical-critical method today. It uses the analysis and hermeneutics of a text to get as close as possible to the original form of the sources considered (in this case those on Jesus) and includes scholars such as David Flusser (1917-2000), author of fundamental writings on ancient Judaism and convinced, as many other contemporary Israeli Jews, that the gospels and the letters of Paul represent the richest and most reliable source for the study of Judaism of the Second Temple, given the loss of other contemporary materials because of the destruction which occurred in the Jewish-Roman Wars (between 70 and 132 A.D.)

[7] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Doubleday, 2017 (pages. 12-13)

[8] The sceptre shall not be taken away from Judah, nor the staff of the commandant from between his feet, until the one to whom it belongs comes and the obedience of the people shall go to him.

[9] It is by now almost universally accepted by scholars that Jesus’ birth year was in 6 B.C., due to an error by the monk Dionysius the Little who, in 533 calculated the beginning of the “vulgar era” starting with the birth of Christ but pushed it forward by about six years. 

[10] In Greek they are defined as μάγοι, mágoi, a term which comes from ancient Persian magūsh, a title reserved for priests of the Zoroastrian religion.

[11] “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,though you are small among the clansof Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor bears a son, and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.” (Micah , Chapter 5).

[12] At that time, the distinction between Judaism and Christianity was not so clear. Pagans especially, but also Judeo-Christians, considered Christians and Jews to be sects of the same religion.

[13] San Girolamo, Letters, 58 (Ad Paulinum presbyterum), 3.

[14] Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis, 12, 20: «Up until a few years ago the place was covered by a forest».

[15] A domus ecclesia is literally a house/church: the first Christian locations were in fact houses that had arisen or which existed previously in places held sacred (for example the house of Mary in Nazareth, the house of Peter in Capernaum, etc.). The first Christian communities met there to celebrate their rites. The houses were transformed little by little into little churches, in some cases expanding to become real basilicas.  This particular process can be observed perfectly in Capernaum, where the Franciscan and Israeli archeologists have unearthed what is universally known as the “house of Peter”, a quadrangular room, about eight meters wide, whose earth floor had been covered with lime at the end of the 1st century and with a polychrome pavement before the fifth century. Above it, an octagonal building was built which rested on top of the room from the 1st century. This procedure of archeological investigation is identical to what was used in Rome for the excavations at the Vatican Necropolis, under the current Basilica of St. Peter’s, or in the Catacombs of San Sebastiano, etc.

[16] This hypothesis would be supported by the Stone of Tivoli (in latin Lapis or Titulus Tiburtinus)

[17] See note 9 on Dionigi il Piccolo.

[18] We read in Flavio Josephus (Ant. 18, 109-119). “Herod, in fact, killed John nicknamed the Baptist, that good man who had exhorted the Jews to live a virtuous life and to practice mutual justice and poetry towards God, inviting them to approach baptism together.  [—] But when the others joined the crowd, since they grew in great numbers to hear his words, Herod began to fear that the effect of such eloquence on people would lead to some upheaval, since it seemed that they would do whatever he decided upon. He therefore thought it would be much better to take initiative and get rid of him before he caused an uprising, rather than Jesus creating an uprising and Herod finding himself in a difficult situation and having to repent. So (John), because of Herod’s suspicions, was sent in chains to Macheronte, the fortress of which we have already spoken, and was killed there.” Another example of a non-Christian source which confirms what was narrated in the gospels. 

[19] Hebrew Passover (פֶּסַח, pesaḥ, “passage”, in Hebrew) celebrates the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and the passage from slavery to freedom.

[20] Giuseppe Ricciotti, Vita di Gesù Cristo, Mondadori, 1994 (pag. 177).

[21] What we know today, which is probable given that, as we know from the Gospel of Matthew, above Jesus’ head a titulum was affixed, a title bearing the reason for his condemnation. 

[22] In the preface to the 5th book of the work Adversus haereses (Against Heresy), Ireneus of Lyons tells how “Christ, because of his superabundant love, became what we are to make of us what He is.”

[23] The proximity of the sources written about Jesus is a topic that impresses historians, since the oldest papyri contained in the New Testament date back to the early 3rd century while the oldest complete manuscript of the Iliad dates back to the 10th century.

[24] Jean Carmignac, Ascoltando il Padre Nostro. La preghiera del Signore come può averla pronunciata Gesù, Amazon Publishing, 2020, pag. 10. Translation from French and adaptation to Italian by Gerardo Ferrara.



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