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What are the Circumstantial Evidence FOR the Resurrection?
Lee Strobel was the former legal editor of The Chicago Tribune and he used his journalistic skill to investigate the evidence for Jesus. He said that he “had been living a profane, drunken, self-absorbed and immoral lifestyle” until “his heart had shrunk to the point where it was rock hard toward anyone else.” After a personal investigation that spanned more than 600 days and interviewing of numerous experts, his verdict in the case for Jesus was overwhelming and clear. He then decided to take the experiential step to accept Jesus Christ as his Savior. He turned to John 1:12 (NIV), “Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.” And his mathematical formula for entering into an ongoing personal relationship with Jesus Christ by becoming adopted into God’s family is:
believe + receive = become
He is currently a teaching pastor at Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forrest, California.
The passages below are taken from Lee Strobel’s book, “The case for Christ,” which was published in 1998.
No witnesses watched Timothy McVeigh load two tons of fertilizer-based explosives into a Ryder rental truck. Nobody saw him drive the vehicle to the front of the federal building in Oklahoma City and detonate the bomb, killing 168 people. No video camera captured an image of him fleeing the scene.
Yet a jury was able to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that McVeigh was guilty of the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. Why? Because fact by fact, exhibit by exhibit, witness by witness, prosecutors used circumstantial evidence to build an airtight case against him.
While none of the 137 people called to the witness stand had seen McVeigh commit the crime, their testimony did provide indirect evidence of his guilt: a businessman said McVeigh rented a Ryder truck, a friend said McVeigh talked about bombing the building out of anger against the government, and a scientist said McVeigh’s clothes contained a residue of explosives when he was arrested.
Prosecutors buttressed this with more than seven hundred exhibits, ranging from motel and taxi receipts to telephone records to a truck key to a bill from a Chinese restaurant. Over eighteen days they skillfully wove a convincing web of evidence from which McVeigh was woefully unable to extricate himself.
Eyewitness testimony is called direct evidence because people describe under oath how they personally saw the defendant commit the crime. While this is often compelling, it can sometimes be subject to faded memories, prejudices, and even outright fabrication. In contrast, circumstantial evidence is made up of indirect facts from which inferences can be rationally drawn.1 Its cumulative effect can be every bit as strong—--and in many instances even more potent—--than eyewitness accounts.
Ask Timothy McVeigh. He may have thought he committed the perfect crime by avoiding eyewitnesses, but he nevertheless landed on death row due to the circumstantial facts that pointed toward him as devastatingly as any firsthand witness could have.
Having already considered the persuasive evidence for the empty tomb, and eyewitness accounts of the risen Jesus, now it was time for me to seek out any circumstantial evidence that might bolster the case for the Resurrection. I knew that if an event as extraordinary as the resurrection of Jesus had really occurred; history would be littered with indirect evidence backing it up.
That quest took me once more to southern California, this time to the office of a professor who masterfully blends expertise in history; philosophy, and science.
THE THIRTEENTH INTERVIEW: J. P. MORELAND, PHD.
J. P. Moreland’s dark-gray hair, silvery mustache, and gold-rimmed glasses make him appear a little older than his fifty years. Yet he is brimming with energy. He spoke in animated and enthusiastic tones, frequently leaning forward in his swivel chair to emphasize his points, actually bouncing a bit at times, almost as if he were going to leap out and throttle me with his arguments.
“I love this stuff,” he exclaimed during one brief break---the only time during our conversation when he stated the obvious.
Moreland’s highly organized mind works so systematically, so logically, that he seems to effortlessly construct his case in complete sentences and whole paragraphs, without wasted words or extraneous thoughts, ready for proofreading and printing. When my tape recorder would stop, he would pause, give me time to slip in a new cassette, and then pick up exactly where he had left off, without missing a beat.
While Moreland is a well-known philosopher (with a doctorate from the University of Southern California) and is comfortable navigating the conceptual world of Kant and Kierkegaard, he doesn’t dwell exclusively in the abstract. His background in science (he has a chemistry degree from the University of Missouri) and mastery of history (as demonstrated by his excellent book Scaling the Secular City) anchor him in the everyday world and prevent him from floating into purely ethereal thinking.
Moreland, who also has a master’s degree in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary, currently is a professor at the Talbot School of Theology, where he teaches in the master’s program in philosophy and ethics.
His articles have been published in more than thirty professional journals, such as American Philosophical Quarterly; Metaphilosophy; and Philosophy and Phenomaeotogical Research. He has written, coauthored, or edited a dozen books, including Christianity and the Nature of Science; Does God Exist? (a debate with Kai Nielsen); The Life and Death Debate; The Creation
Hypothesis; Beyond Death; Exploring the Evidence for
Immortality; Jesus under Fire; and Love Your God with All Your Mind.
Sitting down with Moreland in his small but homey office, I already knew that circumstantial evidence is plural rather than singular. In other words, it’s built brick by brick by brick until there’s a sturdy foundation on which conclusions can be confidently based.
So I began our interview with a point-blank challenge:
“Can you give me five pieces of circumstantial evidence that convince you Jesus rose from the dead?”
Moreland listened intently to my question. “Five examples?” he asked. “Five things that are not in dispute by anybody?”
I nodded. With that Moreland pushed his chair back from his desk and launched into his first piece of evidence: the changed lives of the disciples and their willingness to die for their conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead.
EXHIBIT 1: THE DISCIPLES DIED FOR THEIR BELIEF
“When Jesus was crucified,” Moreland began, “his followers were discouraged and depressed. They no longer had confidence that Jesus had been sent by God, because they believed anyone crucified was accursed by God. They also had been taught that God would not let his Messiah suffer death. So they dispersed. The Jesus movement was all but stopped in its tracks.
“Then, after a short period of time, we see them abandoning their occupations, re-gathering, and committing themselves to spreading a very specific message---that Jesus Christ was the Messiah of God who died on a cross, returned to life, and was seen alive by them.
“And they were willing to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming this, without any pay-off from a human point of view. It’s not as though there were a mansion awaiting them on the Mediterranean. They faced a life of hardship. They often went without food, slept exposed to the elements, were ridiculed, beaten, imprisoned. And finally, most of them were executed in torturous ways.
“For what? For good intentions? No, because they were convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that they had seen Jesus Christ alive from the dead. What you can’t explain is how this particular group of men came up with this particular belief without having had an experience of the resurrected Christ. There’s no other adequate explanation.”
I interrupted with a “Yes, but . . .” objection. “Yes,” I agreed, “they were willing to die for their beliefs. But,” I added, “so have Muslims and Mormons and followers of Jim Jones and David Koresh. This may show that they were fanatical, but let’s face it: it doesn’t prove that what they believed is true.”
“Wait a minute—--think carefully about the difference,” Moreland insisted as he swiveled to face me head-on, planting both of his feet firmly on the floor.
“Muslims might be willing to die for their belief that Allah revealed himself to Muhammad, but this revelation was not done in a publicly observable way. So they could be wrong about it. They may sincerely think it’s true, but they can’t know for a fact, because they didn’t witness it themselves.
“However, the apostles were willing to die for something they had seen with their own eyes and touched with their own hands. They were in a unique position not to just believe Jesus rose from the dead but to know for sure. And when you’ve got eleven credible people with no ulterior motives, with nothing to gain and a lot to lose, who all agree they observed something with their own eyes--- now you’ve got some difficulty explaining that away.”
I smiled because I had been playing devil’s advocate by raising my objection. Actually, I knew he was right. In fact, this critical distinction was pivotal in my own spiritual journey.
It had been put to me this way. People will die for their religious beliefs if they sincerely believe they’re true, but people won’t die for their religious beliefs if they know their beliefs are false.
While most people can only have faith that their beliefs are true, the disciples were in a position to know without a doubt whether or not Jesus had risen from the dead. They claimed that they saw him, talked with him, and ate with him. If they weren’t absolutely certain, they wouldn’t have allowed themselves to be tortured to death for proclaiming that the Resurrection had happened?
“OK, I’m convinced on that one,” I said. “But what else do you have?”
EXHIBIT 2: THE CONVERSION OF SKEPTICS
“Another piece of circumstantial evidence,” Moreland went on, “is that there were hardened skeptics, who didn’t believe in Jesus before his crucifixion—--and were to some degree dead-set against Christianity—--who turned around and adopted the Christian faith after Jesus’ death. There’s no good reason for this apart from them having experienced the resurrected Christ.”
“You’re obviously talking about James, the brother of Jesus, and Saul of Tarsus, who became the apostle Paul;” I said. “But do you really have any credible evidence that James had been a skeptic of Jesus?”
“Yes, I do,” he said. “The gospels tell us Jesus’ family, including James, was embarrassed by what he was claiming to be. They didn’t believe in him; they confronted him. In ancient Judaism it was highly embarrassing for a rabbi’s family not to accept him. Therefore the gospel writers would have no motive for fabricating this skepticism if it weren’t true.
“Later the historian Josephus tells us that James, the brother of Jesus, who was the leader of the Jerusalem church, was stoned to death because of his belief in his brother. Why did James’s life change? Paul tells us: the resurrected Jesus appeared to him. There’s no other explanation.”
Indeed, none jumped to mind. “And Saul?” I asked.
“As a Pharisee, he hated anything that disrupted the traditions of the Jewish people. To him, this new countermovement called Christianity would have been the height of disloyalty. In fact, he worked out his frustration by executing Christians when he had a chance,” Moreland replied.
“Suddenly he doesn’t just ease off Christians but joins their movement! How did this happen? Well, everyone agrees Paul wrote Galatians, and he tells us himself in that letter what caused him to take a 180-degree turn and become the chief proponent of the Christian faith. By his own pen he says he saw the risen Christ and heard Christ appoint him to be one of his followers.”
I was waiting for Moreland to make this point, so I could challenge him with an objection by Christianity critic Michael Martin. He said that if you count Paul’s conversion as being evidence for the truth of the Resurrection, you should count Muhammad’s conversion to Islam as being evidence for the truth that Jesus was not resurrected, since Muslims deny the Resurrection!
“Basically, he says the evidential values of Paul’s conversion and Muhammad’s conversion cancel each other, out,” I told Moreland. “Frankly, that seems like a good point. Won’t you admit that he’s right?”
Moreland didn’t bite. “Let’s take a look at Muhammad’s conversion,” he said with confidence in his voice. “No one knows anything about it. Muhammad claims he went into a cave and had a religious experience in which Allah revealed the Koran to him. There’s no other eyewitness to verify this. Muhammad offered no publicly miraculous signs to certify anything.
“And someone easily could have had ulterior motives in following Muhammad, because in the early years Islam was spread largely by warfare. Followers of Muhammad gained political influence and power over the villages that were conquered and ‘converted’ to Islam by the sword.
“Contrast that with the claims of the early followers of Jesus, including Paul. They claimed to have seen public events that other people saw as well. These were things that happened outside their minds, not just in their minds.
“Furthermore, when Paul wrote 2 Corinthians---which nobody disputes he did---he reminded the people in Corinth that he performed miracles when he was with them earlier. He’d certainly be foolish to make this statement if they knew he hadn’t.”
“And your point?” I asked.
“Remember,” he said, “it’s not the simple fact that Paul changed his views. You have to explain how he had this particular change of belief that completely went against his upbringing; how he saw the risen Christ in a public event that was witnessed by others, even though they didn’t understand it; and how he performed miracles to back up his claim to being an apostle.”
“All right, all right,” I said. “I see your point. And
I’ll admit, it’s a good one.” With that I gestured for him to go on to his next piece of evidence.
EXHIBIT 3: CHANGES TO KEY SOCIAL STRUCTURES
In order to explain his next category of circumstantial proof, Moreland had to provide some important background information about Jewish culture.
“At the time of Jesus, the Jews had been persecuted for seven hundred years by the Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, and now by the Greeks and the Romans,” Moreland explained. “Many Jews had been scattered and lived as captives in these other nations.
“However, we still see Jews today, while we don’t see Hittites, Perizzites, Ammonites, Assyrians, Persians, Babylonians, and other people who had been living in that time. Why? Because these people got captured by other nations, intermarried, and lost their national identity.
“Why didn’t that happen to the Jews? Because the things that made the Jews, Jews---the social structures that gave them their national identity---were unbelievably important to them. The Jews would pass these structures down to their children, celebrate them in synagogue meetings every Sabbath, and reinforce them with their rituals, because they knew if they didn’t there soon would be no Jews left. They would be assimilated into the cultures that captured them.
“And there’s another reason why these social institutions were so important: they believed these institutions were entrusted to them by God. They believed that to abandon these institutions would be to risk their souls being damned to hell after death.
“Now a rabbi named Jesus appears from a lower-class region. He teaches for three years, gathers a following of lower-and middle-class people, gets in trouble with the authorities, and gets crucified along with thirty thousand other Jewish men who are executed during this time period.
` “But five weeks after he’s crucified, over ten thousand Jews are following him and claiming that he is the initiator of a new religion. And get this: they’re willing to give up or alter all five of the social institutions that they have been taught since childhood have such importance both sociologically and theologically.”
“So the implication is that something big was going on,” I said.
Moreland exclaimed, “Something very big was going on!”
Revolutionizing Jewish Life
I invited Moreland to go through these five social structures and explain how the followers of Jesus had changed or abandoned them.
“First,” he said, “they had been taught ever since the time of Abraham and Moses that they needed to offer an animal sacrifice on a yearly basis to atone for their sins. God would transfer their sins to that animal, and their sins would be forgiven so they could be in right standing with him. But all of a sudden, after the death of this Nazarene carpenter, these Jewish people no longer offer sacrifices.
“Second, Jews emphasized obeying the laws that God had entrusted to them through Moses. In their view, this is what separated them from pagan nations. Yet within a short time after Jesus’ death, Jews were beginning to say that you don’t become an upstanding member of their community merely by keeping Moses’ laws.
“Third, Jews scrupulously kept the Sabbath by not doing anything except religious devotion every Saturday. This is how they would earn right standing with God, guarantee the salvation of their family, and be in right standing with the nation. However, after the death of this Nazarene carpenter, this fifteen-hundred-year tradition abruptly changed. These Christians worship on Sunday---why? Because that’s when Jesus rose from the dead.
“Fourth, they believed in monotheism---only one God. While Christians teach a form of monotheism, they say that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God. This is radically different from what the Jews believed. They would have considered it the height of heresy to say someone could be God and man at the same time. Yet Jews begin to worship Jesus as God within the first decade the Christian religion.
“And fifth, these Christians pictured the Messiah as someone who suffered and died for the sins of the world, whereas Jews had been trained to believe that the Messiah was going to be a political leader who would destroy the Roman armies.”
With that context established, Moreland went in for the rhetorical kill, drilling me with his intense and unwavering gaze. “Lee,” he said, “how can you possibly explain why in a short period of time not just one Jew but an entire community of at least ten thousand Jews were willing to give up these five key practices that had served them sociologically and theologically for so many centuries?. My explanation is simple: they had seen Jesus risen from the dead.”
While Moreland’s point was extremely impressive, I saw a problem in people understanding it today. I told him that it’s very difficult for twentieth-century Americans to appreciate the radical nature of this transformation.
“These days people are fluid in their faith,” I said. “They bounce back and forth between Christianity and New Age beliefs. They dabble in Buddhism, they mix and match and create their own spirituality. For them, making the kind of changes you mentioned wouldn’t seem like a big deal.”
Moreland nodded. He had apparently heard this objection before. “I’d ask a person like that, ‘What’s your most cherished belief? That your parents were good people? That murder is immoral? Think about how radical something must be to get you to change or give up that belief you treasure so much. Now we’re starting to get close.’
“Keep in mind that this is an entire community of people who are abandoning treasured beliefs that have been passed on for centuries and that they believed were from God himself. They were doing it even though they were jeopardizing their own well-being, and they also believed they were risking the damnation of their souls to hell if they were wrong.
“What’s more, they were not doing this because they had come upon better ideas. They were very content with the old traditions. They gave them up because they had seen miracles that they could not explain and that forced them to see the world another way.”
“We’re Western individualists who like technological and sociological change,” I observed. “Traditions don’t mean as much to us.”
“I’ll grant that,” Moreland replied. “But these people did value tradition. They lived in a period in which the older something was, the better. In fact, for them the further back they could trace an idea, the more likely it was to be true. So to come up with new ideas was opposite of the way we are today.
“Believe me,” he concluded, “these changes to the Jewish social structures were not just minor adjustments that were casually made---they were absolutely monumental. This was nothing short of a social earthquake! And earthquakes don’t happen without a cause.”
EXHIBIT 4: COMMUNION AND BAPTISM
Moreland pointed to the emergence of the sacraments of Communion and baptism in the early church as more circumstantial evidence that the Resurrection is true. But I had some doubts.
“Isn’t it only natural that religions would create their own rituals and practices?” I asked. “All religions have them. So how does that prove anything about the Resurrection?”
“Ah, but let’s consider Communion for a moment,” he replied. “What’s odd is that these early followers of Jesus didn’t get together to celebrate his teachings or how wonderful he was. They came together regularly to have a celebration meal for one reason: to remember that Jesus had been publicly slaughtered in a grotesque and humiliating way.
“Think about this in modern terms. If a group of people loved John F. Kennedy, they might meet regularly to remember his confrontation with Russia, his promotion of civil rights, and his charismatic personality. But they’re not going to celebrate the fact that Lee Haney Oswald murdered him!
“However, that’s analogous to what these early Christians did. How do you explain that? I explain it this way: they realized that Jesus’ slaying was a necessary step to a much greater victory. His murder wasn’t the last word---the last word was that he had conquered death for all of us by rising from the dead. They celebrated his execution because they were convinced that they had seen him alive from the tomb.”
“What about baptism?” I asked.
“The early church adopted a form of baptism from their Jewish upbringing, called proselyte baptism. When Gentiles wanted to take upon themselves the laws of Moses, the Jews would baptize those Gentiles in the authority of the God of Israel. But in the New Testament, people were baptized in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit---which meant they had elevated Jesus to the full status of God.
“Not only that, but baptism was a celebration of the death of Jesus, just as Communion was. By going under the water, you’re celebrating his death, and by being brought out of the water, you’re celebrating the fact that Jesus was raised to newness of life.”
I interrupted by saying, “You’re assuming that these sacraments weren’t merely adapted from the so-called mystery religions.”
“And for good reasons,” Moreland replied. “First there’s no hard evidence that any mystery religion believed in gods dying and rising, until after the New Testament period. So if there was any borrowing, they borrowed from Christianity
“Second, the practice of baptism came from Jewish customs, and the Jews were very much against allowing Gentile or Greek ideas to affect their worship. And third, these two sacraments can be dated back to the very earliest Christian community---too early for the influence of any other religions to creep into their understanding of what Jesus’ death meant.”
EXHIBIT 5: THE EMERGENCE OF THE CHURCH
Moreland prefaced this final point by saying, “When a major cultural shift takes place, historians always look for events that can explain it.”
“Yes, that makes sense,” I said.
“OK, then let’s think about the start of the Christian church. There’s no question it began shortly after the death of Jesus and spread so rapidly that within a period of maybe twenty years it had even reached Caesar’s palace in Rome. Not only that, but this movement triumphed over a number of competing ideologies and eventually overwhelmed the entire Roman Empire.
“Now, if you were a Martian looking down on the first Century, would you think Christianity or the Roman Empire would survive? You probably wouldn’t put money on a ragtag group of people whose primary message was that a crucified carpenter from an obscure village had triumphed over the grave. Yet it was so successful that today we name our children Peter and Paul and our dogs Caesar and Nero!
“I like the way C. F. D. Mode, the Cambridge New Testament scholar, put it: ‘if the coming into existence of the Nazarenes, a phenomenon undeniably attested by the New Testament, rips a great hole in history, a hole the size and shape of Resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to stop it up with?”3
While this wasn’t Moreland’s strongest point, since other religious movements have popped up and spread too, circumstantial evidence doesn’t rely solely on the strength of one fact. Rather it’s the cumulative weight of several facts that together tip the scales toward a conclusion. And to Moreland, the conclusion is clear.
“Look,” he said, “if someone wants to consider this circumstantial evidence and reach the verdict that Jesus did not rise from the dead---fair enough. But they’ve got to offer an alternative explanation that is plausible for all five of these facts.
“Remember, there’s no doubt these facts are true; what’s in question is how to explain them. And I’ve never seen a better explanation than the Resurrection.”
I mentally played back the tape of the circumstantial evidence: the willingness of the disciples to die for what they experienced; the revolutionized lives of skeptics like James and Saul; the radical changes in social structures cherished by Jews for centuries; the sudden appearance of Communion and baptism; and the amazing emergence and growth of the church.
Given all five uncontested facts, I had to agree with Moreland that the Resurrection, and only the Resurrection, makes sense of them all. No other explanation comes close. And that’s just the indirect evidence. When I added the potent proof for the empty tomb of Jesus, and the convincing testimony about his post-Resurrection appearances, the case seemed conclusive.
That was also the assessment of Sir Lionel Luckhoo, the brilliant and savvy attorney whose astounding 245 consecutive murder acquittals earned him a place in The Guinness Book of World Record as the world’s most successful lawyer.4 Knighted twice by Queen Elizabeth, this former justice and diplomat subjected the historical facts about the Resurrection to his own rigorous analysis for several years before declaring, “I say unequivocally that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so overwhelming that it compels acceptance by proof which leaves absolutely no room for doubt.”5
But wait. There is more.
TAKING THE FINAL STEP
Our interview over, Moreland and I were bantering about football as I unplugged my tape recorder and began packing away my notes. Though I was in a bit of a hurry to catch my flight back to Chicago, he said something that prompted me to pause.
“There’s one other category of evidence you haven’t asked about,” he remarked.
My mind reviewed our interview. “I give up,” I said.
“What is it?”
“It’s the ongoing encounter with the resurrected Christ that happens all over the world, in every culture, to people from all kinds of backgrounds and personalities---well educated and not, rich and poor, thinkers and feelers, men and women,” he said. “They all will testify that more than any single thing in their lives, Jesus Christ has changed them.”
Moreland leaned forward for emphasis. “To me, this provides the final evidence---not the only evidence but the final confirming proof---that the message of Jesus can open the door to a direct encounter with the risen Christ.”
“I assume you’ve had an encounter like that,” I said. “Tell me about it.”
“In 1968 I was a cynical chemistry major at the University of Missouri, when I was confronted with the fact that if I examined the claims of Jesus Christ critically but with an open mind, there was more than enough evidence for me to believe it.
“So I took a step of faith in the same direction the evidence was pointing, by receiving Jesus as my forgiver and leader, and I began to relate to him---to the resurrected Christ---in a very real and ongoing way.
“In three decades I’ve had hundreds of specific answers to prayers, I’ve had things happen that simply cannot be explained by natural explanations, and I have experienced a changed life beyond anything I could have imagined.”
But, I protested, people experience life change in other religions whose tenets contradict Christianity. “Isn’t it dangerous to base a decision on subjective experiences?” I asked.
“Let me make two things clear” he said. “First, I’m not saying, ‘Just trust your experience.’ I’m saying, ‘Use your mind calmly and weigh the evidence, and then let experience be a confirming piece of evidence.’ Second, if what this evidence points to is true---that is, if all these lines of evidence really do point to the resurrection of Jesus---the evidence itself begs for an experiential test.”
“Define that,” I said.
“The experiential test is, ‘He’s still alive, and I can find out by relating to him.’ If you were on a jury and heard enough evidence to convince you of someone’s guilt, it wouldn’t make sense to stop short of the final step of convicting him. And for people to accept the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and not take the final step of testing it experientially would be to miss where the evidence is ultimately pointing.”
“So,” I said, “if the evidence points strongly in this direction, it’s only rational and logical to follow it into the experiential realm.”
He nodded in approval. “That’s precisely right,” he laid. “It’s the final confirmation of the evidence. In fact, I’ll say this: the evidence screams out for the experiential test.” (329-347)
1. Black, Black’s Law Dictionary, 221.
2. See Josh McDowell, More Than a Carpenter (Wheaton, Ill: Living Books, 1977), 60-71.
3. C. F. D. Motile, The Phenomenon of the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1967), 3.
4. Donald McFarlan, ed., The Guinness Book of World Records (New York: Bantam, 1991), 547.
5. Clifford, The Case for the Empty Tomb, 112.
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