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I am fundamentally opposed to socialist but I was reading the Bible and came across ‭‭Acts‬ ‭4:32-35, where it says they practiced what looks like socialism.

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (ESV‬‬)

What was the Early Church belief on socialism and did they practice it? I am really interested in studying this from the perspective of the early church.

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    where in Acts exactly? can you provide reference and why you believe it states specific viewpoint?
    – depperm
    May 19 at 11:56
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    You would need to define what you, yourself, regard as 'socialist'. It is a broad term.
    – Nigel J
    May 19 at 12:02
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    It’s also important to note that socialism broadly implies governmental intervention to provide either welfare or a sharing of the means of production - which wasn’t at all what the early church practiced.
    – Luke Hill
    May 19 at 13:01
  • 6
    Questions shouldn't use words such as "I" or "me"; keep them objective and impersonal. Try something like "Acts XX:YY says “…”. Which denominations interpret this as supporting a socialist/communal lifestyle?". Try taking the Tour of this site. May 19 at 13:03
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    Socialism was not a concept in 1st century times, and would not for millenia afterwards. So the church had no opinion on it, as your title asks. May 19 at 15:25

8 Answers 8

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To what extent was the early church "socialist"?

Acts 4:32-37 (NASB95)
And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one [of them] claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them.

This passage is commonly referenced in conversations about socialism, and it's a good question to ask.

Fundamental Differences

There is at least one fundamental difference between what is described in Acts 4 and modern definitions of socialism: voluntary participation.

In this passage, the believers were all sharing property without being compelled by external forces to do so. There was probably some social pressure, (as we see in what follows), but even Peter says that they were not compelled to participate or even participate in full. In the next chapter, Peter rebukes Ananias and Sapphira for lying about their participation. Referring to the property they sold, he says

Acts 5:4a (NASB95)
“While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not 1under your control?”

Ananias and Sapphira were punished not for not giving all the money, but for lying (to the Holy Spirit) about how much they gave, as if to be able to boast (before men) about their generosity. All of this seems to demonstrate that the system in which they were participating was purely voluntary.

Modern ideas of socialism involve governments requiring this kind of thing of all (or, cynically, most) of its citizens. They provide no way to opt out of such economic systems.

The important difference is that when one freely chooses to give, this is seen differently by God. Recall the words of Paul

2 Corinthians 9:7 (NASB95)
Each one [must do] just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

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    But keep in mind that Acts 4 is describing what happened immediately after the Pentecost events, when a large number of people visiting from many different lands were introduced to Christianity. Many of them would have ended up staying far longer than they had been planned for their original visit, and wouldn't have any funds available to support them (not ATMs or e-transfers). Sharing what one had with those that didn't have anything was "the Christian thing" to do, but it was only a temporary situation, not a long-term societal life-style. May 19 at 13:10
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    @RayButterworth that's a literal interpretation of scripture. If it were just a footnote in history, it wouldn't need to be scripture. Which is probably why we shouldn't answer "Early Church" questions using the New Testament.
    – Peter Turner
    May 19 at 15:20
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    The Early Church relates ”to first several centuries of the Christian church; usually considered to end in the 4th century.”
    – Ken Graham
    May 20 at 2:48
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    Socialism is not sharing all things, it is the social ownership of a specific thing: the means of production (the tools, equipment, land, and knowledge to produce things). What that ownership looks like varies depending on the flavour of socialism (a dictatorial state is not required). People in a capitalist system are also compelled to participate if they want to be a part of that society. Compulsion to participate is not uniquely socialist. This answer (and the question as stated) presents a reasonable knowledge of scripture, but a poor understanding of socialism.
    – Acts
    May 20 at 14:11
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    This post completely ignores the many histories of both historical and modern voluntary socialism or Libertarian Socialism. The focus on means of production is a very Marxist view but there are other practices of socialism as well to consider.
    – Rozgonyi
    May 20 at 19:01
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Modern-day Socialists would be unlikely to view the first century Christians as Socialists, despite a few similarities. This dictionary definition of socialism states that Socialists believe in a

"Political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that community as a whole should own and control the means of production, distribution and exchange; policy or practice based in this theory." (The Concise Oxford Dictionary, p.1087, 6th edition, 1976)

The first century Christians avoided politics and sought no quarrel with the Roman Empire, leaving it entirely to keep running its massive production, distribution and exchange systems. Modern-day Socialists are up to their ears in politics and may well quarrel with all who disagree with their political methods. First century Christians were out to tell the world the good news of Christ, as King of God's Kingdom. Although modern "Christian Socialists" might say they want to do that alongside their socialism, first-century Christians believed that involvement with the world's ways and goals was anathema to Christian faith. The New Testament is full of warnings to steer clear of all worldly ways and even thinking, as the whole world is said to be deceived by its puppet-master, Satan the Devil.

What the Christians did there, as recorded in Acts 4:32-35, showed the new group of Christians invigorated by the power of the Holy Spirit, gearing up to spread the gospel out from Jerusalem, to Samaria, then to the farthest parts of the earth. They had just embraced three thousand converts in one day, and while those travelers to Jerusalem were with them, they got a system going to help them, materially and spiritually. The new converts had to be taught about Jesus so that when they returned to their homes in other countries, they would take that good news with them. That message was spiritual, not political. And whereas new converts to Christ would be keen to help poor people (neighbours, strangers they came across), their priority would be to tell them about Jesus.

I can't see modern-day Socialists having any enthusiasm for that!

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  • The Early Church relates ”to first several centuries of the Christian church; usually considered to end in the 4th century.”
    – Ken Graham
    May 20 at 2:47
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    Ah! Right. The OP simply said, "‭‭...Acts‬ ‭4:32-35, where it says they practiced what looks like socialism." I took it from there, as no qualification was given as to "they" then meaning Christians in the following centuries.
    – Anne
    May 20 at 8:24
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Dan Walden, a Christian writer who has written on socialism from a Christian perspective, addresses a related question in the essay, "Was Jesus a Socialist?":

Jesus was obviously not a socialist, because he lived in first-century Palestine under Roman occupation, about 1600 years before the first stirrings of capitalism and 1800 years before the European industrial revolution gave rise to socialism. This is not mere pedantry: socialism is a very historically specific response to social conditions that did not exist in Europe prior to the development of mass production.

Similar logic applies here: the Early Church never gave an opinion on socialism because it predated socialism.

If you're trying to find a better way of describing the practices described in Acts 4, one suggestion comes from an essay by the theologian David Bentley Hart, who agrees with Aristeides Papadakis' assessment of the early Church as "communist", in that, "They lived a common life and voluntarily enjoyed a community of possessions."

You may be interested to read the quotes from the homilies of St John Chrysostom excerpted in this blog, which give the perspective of one Father of the Church on wealth and poverty.

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    – agarza
    May 20 at 1:18
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The early church unequivocally did not practice socialism. Socialism is more than simply a communal economic system; it's an entire way of life built atop a very specific philosophy of human behavior rooted in atheist humanism.

Early Christian communal life, meanwhile, was built atop a philosophy that was obviously not atheist in nature! So whatever the superficial similarities may have been, the resulting way of life was definitely not socialism, communism, or anything else closely related thereto.

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    Could you please elaborate on how socialism is rooted in atheism? It's... not at all related to religious belief or non belief.
    – Rob
    May 20 at 8:10
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    @Rob The term "socialism" as understood today comes from the work of Karl Marx, where he used it as synonymous with communism. (The term was later redefined by Lenin as an intermediate stage on the way to full communism.) His writings on communism are explicitly atheist in character, disparaging religion as "the opiate of the masses" and setting out an alternative humanist worldview designed to replace religion's role in society. That's the theory, and the practice agrees with it: socialist governments have been uniformly hostile to religion and imposed atheist values on their subjects.
    – Mason Wheeler
    May 20 at 17:35
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    Christian socialism certainly predates Karl Marx. And I suspect you could not show all the socialist governments in northern and western Europe imposed atheist values on their citizens.
    – Henry
    May 20 at 17:50
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    @Henry Words have meanings, and just because people use them doesn't mean they're being used correctly. As far as I can tell, the term "Christian socialism" does not predate Marx; it was invented afterwards by people making the very mistake I'm refuting here. As for "all the socialist governments in northern and western Europe," which ones are you referring to exactly? I'm not aware of a single northern or western European nation in which the government forcibly places itself in control of private enterprise in the name of The People.
    – Mason Wheeler
    May 21 at 1:14
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    @Henry. I'm not sure that any extant European government could reasonably be described as socialist. Not everything to the left of hyper-capitalism is socialism.
    – TRiG
    May 21 at 18:33
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Roman government social and economic realities

We first need to remember the social and economic realities of the societies in which the early church operated before Constantine which affected everyone regardless of religion. In those early centuries there were no state sponsored social safety nets like the welfare systems of today. Even the Roman government itself depends on the top 1% wealthy citizens of the hundreds of cities throughout the Roman empire to govern each of their cities. The central government was very lean compared to today's Western nations like United States. Only the very wealthy could be senators and city leaders. They were expected to bankroll many government functions in exchange of honors and recognition inscribed in commemorative large silver/gold coins that they give away during annual festivals to the masses, and inscriptions in the buildings they bankrolled (akin to today's donor plaques, donor wall signage, and building names). "Bread and circus" (food and entertainment) was how those leaders won the affection of the masses, and to the masses the benefits from those festivals were necessities, not nice to have.

Therefore, if you are poor, sick, old, widows or orphans, you rely on the charity of others. Government tax revenue don't go to them at all like in today's welfare systems. If you cannot find charity, you just die, or you can sell yourselves as slaves with the benefit of getting fed by your masters. Or you can join the army and make your fortune as you go up the ranks, sharing in the spoils of war. Or you can ingratiate yourselves to some patrons, like what Josephus did. Or if you are literate, you can become pedagogues (basically slaves) to wealthy kids.

After Constantine, the situation was very different since the state poured money and privileges to the church, entrusting bishops to manage them. But this is not the social reality the OP was asking about.

Voluntary acts of love and charity, not socialism

As the other answers say, there was no hint of modern socialism at all to be the backdrop of Acts 4:32-35. Also in view here is how St. Paul's doing collection for the Jerusalem church (who was affected by famine) recorded in his letters and in later chapters of the book of Acts. Instead, we should interpret Acts 4:32-35 as expressions of voluntary acts of mercy and charity toward the most vulnerable widows, orphans, and the poor that were beneath the notice of non-Christians, maybe similar to the Indian lowest caste people cared for by St. Theresa's mission. They felt responsible as brothers and sisters in Christ to care for them and raise their dignity. These acts of mercy became institutionalized as normal expressions of love among Christians that became admired by non-Christians motivating them to become Christian themselves ("See How They Love One Another!" -- Tertullian), because they must have loaned without expecting being paid back (Matt 5:42).

Thus, the pattern of the wealthy Christians selling their properties to bankroll this charity should not be seen as mandatory rule by the church elders, but more following the pattern of the wealthy city leaders who voluntarily bankrolled city projects, except that they don't do it for receiving honors like non-Christians, but out of gratitude for Christ, storing treasures in heaven.

There was also a precedent among the Jewish communities where even before Jesus it was a norm for wealthy Jews to redeem their fellow ethnic Jews from destitution, even redeeming them from slavery.

The selling was also not to the extent that they become poor themselves (like how Jesus called the young ruler to "sell everything"), as they must have had a lot left to live comfortably. They also would have retained control of their means of production (like farm lands, primary residences, etc.) but would have taken Christian strangers to live in their households until they could support themselves again. Therefore, this should not be compared to the Essene practice of pooling their money into a common fund (literally into one single coin pot, upon joining) until they have nothing left in their pocket.

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  • This answer assumes private property and state property are the only forms of property and does not seem to be aware of usafruct, communal land/resource usages, or that holding everything in common is not at all the same as giving everything away.
    – Rozgonyi
    May 20 at 21:14
  • @Rozgonyi The context of the OP is the Roman Empire period (27 BC to 476 AD) where property rights are similar to those in Western nations today (see this article). According to Wikipedia usufructs under Roman law is "a beneficial right in another's property" which in turn has an owner who has full legal right to it. So under Roman law, it seems similar to a lease. So I don't think your idea existed in that period. May 21 at 1:16
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    Nitpick, there was the daily corn dole for the poor in Rome and Constantinople. A net defined by its holes, but a safety net of sorts. May 21 at 5:35
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What was the Early Church’s view on socialism?

Socialism as a economic system did not exist within the Early Church, regardless how some like to link it to various scriptural passages that make these certain passages to say the opposite, especially in the Book of Acts.

When we read the story of the early Church there are statements which suggest Socialism or even Communism, as for instance when we read that "they had all things common," but a fuller investigation shows their Communism was local, voluntary, occasional, temporary. It was practiced only in Jerusalem, no one was compelled to divide or sell his property, not all adopted the practice, but many like Mary the mother of Mark kept their homes in the city. Furthermore, this Communism was only practiced for a time. It was prompted by love and designed to meet a special crisis, but never admitted or established as an abiding principle of Church life.

Here are the two passages most often used to suggest that the early church was socialist or communist.

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:44-45)

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. . . . There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32, 34-35)

Let’s set aside that socialism and communism are not identical, socialism being for Lenin a distinct stage between capitalism and communism. In broad terms, we could say that socialism implies social ownership of the means of production, while communism also insists upon an equitable and shared consumption of that production.

At first glance it can look like the first-century church modeled an early form of socialism. After all, “they had everything in common.” Maybe Marx was just reading his Bible when he argued, “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.” Isn’t that what’s going on in the early church? Later in Acts 11:29 we read, “So the disciples determined, everyone according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea.” That sounds a lot like a big social safety net and redistribution along socialist lines.

First, there is no evidence that the first Christians shared in the means of production and no record that they abolished private property. We see nothing like a workers collective, let alone state-run enterprises in the book of Acts. The Christians were generous, but they did not disavow personal ownership of their possessions. To be sure, we see Christians selling their land and houses in order to provide for the needy (Acts 4:34, 37). And yet, as Acts 5:4 makes clear, these assets remained in possession of private owners and could be used as the owners saw fit. Even after properties were sold, the proceeds belonged to the individual or family, not to the state, nor to a collective, nor even to the church. This is confirmed in the history of the early church as we see congregations meeting in private homes and persons still in possession of private property (Acts 16:15).

Second, the distribution of possessions in Acts was not by force or coercion, but chosen freely and voluntarily. To say the church had a wonderful communal spirit is far different from saying they practiced anything remotely like state-enforced communism. The expression “everything in common” was used to describe radical generosity in the early church. Sharing in the church was and is a clear sign of the in-breaking of the kingdom (1 John 3:16-17). But nowhere in the New Testament do we see the church embody or support a practice that forces wealth redistribution at penalty of church-run discipline or penalty of the state-run sword. “Everything in common” spoke to the love of the Christians, not to a law among the Christians.

One last thought in closing: When it comes to political prescriptions—from the left or from the right—we must insist as Christians on closer inspection of actual biblical texts. This doesn’t mean natural law has no place in our discussion or that we can’t argue from principles to practice. But it does mean that where we are talking about issues of economics or justice or race or whatever, we cannot settle for soft slogans and big themes. We have to get into the text and make our case from Scripture. And if we can’t make our case directly from Scripture—and often we won’t—let us be honest enough to make clear that we are basing our arguments, at least in part, on prudential considerations, history, social science, or other factors.

Were the First Christians Socialists?

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It really depends on your definition of "socialism". As others have pointed out here it would be anachronistic to call anything before maybe the 18th or 19th century "socialist" but that doesn't mean that there hasn't been many places and times throughout world history where advanced societies have "had everything in common". The Iroquois are one of many examples. It's something that is very possible to do in large scale societies without authoritarian state control but just something that is not familiar to many of us.

Most definitions here also are focusing on "state socialism" but that is but one form of socialism (and one I am also against). However, the early Christians did live in a way that could be called a form of Libertarian Socialism. While there are anti-religious strands of modern Libertarian Socialism, there are also very religious ones as well - Tolstoy being a great example. His work "The Kingdom of God is Within You" quite beautifully talks about it.

So in short, yes, one could say the early Christians practiced what would today be called religious libertarian socialism.

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    – agarza
    May 20 at 19:48
  • "Overlapping with anarchism and libertarianism,libertarian socialists criticize wage slavery relationships within the workplace,emphasizing workers' self-management and decentralized structures of political organization.As a broad socialist tradition and movement, libertarian socialism includes anarchist, Marxist, and anarchist- or Marxist-inspired thought as well as other left-libertarian tendencies.Anarchism and libertarian Marxism are the main currents of libertarian socialism". The church didn't opine on labour markets or workplaces, hadn't heard of Marx, and had little political opinion. May 21 at 5:46
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What was the Early Church belief on socialism … ?

  • Concepts like socialism and communism are recent political terms that didn't exist during biblical times.
  • Except within large families or small close-knit villages, it's unlikely anything resembling these ideas would have even existed.
  • Even had they existed, there would be no practical purpose for them; people couldn't simply form a new political party dedicated to overturning the entire economic structure of the Roman Empire.

… and did they practice it?

The only reason for even suspecting that this might be true is the text that is quoted in the question and which is frequently quoted by those that want a proof-text that Jesus supported socialism, communism, or communalism.

No personal property, having all things in common, distributing according to need certainly, all sound like communal living.

But this claim totally ignores the context of the quotation. It is purely the product of eisegesis, reading what one already believes into the text.

In fact, it is quite easy to disprove the idea using another proof text:

For you yourselves know how you ought to follow us, for we were not disorderly among you; nor did we eat anyone’s bread free of charge, but worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, not because we do not have authority, but to make ourselves an example of how you should follow us. For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.
— 2 Thessalonians 3:7–10

This is definitely not the kind of example one would set for a socialist lifestyle.

But that scripture by itself isn't definitive "proof", any more than was the original quotation in the Question.


Instead of eisegesis, the best way to properly understand scripture is through exegesis, determining truth from out of the text, by looking at everything in context, considering people's motives and viewpoints, and using abductive reasoning to eliminate explanations that create more questions than they answer.

Acts 4:32–35, quoted in the Question, is simply a recap of what is described two chapters earlier:

Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.
— Acts 2:44–45

Why did they do that?

First, consider what happened just before that:

Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.
— Acts 2:41—42

Instead of consisting of a few long-time disciples, the community had suddenly expanded into thousands of people, all learning, living, eating, and praying together.

This rapid expansion immediately followed the beginning of the church of God during Pentecost following the Crucifixion described earlier in the same chapter:

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.
And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.
Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven.
And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language.
Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans?
“And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born?
“Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,
“Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,
“Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.”
— Acts 2:1–11

This is where most of the three thousand new Christians came from; not from Jerusalem's inhabitants, but from Jews visiting from throughout the Roman Empire.

Whether they had come to Jerusalem for a Pentecost pilgrimage or on business, they were all visitors, all expecting to return home in the near future. But now unexpectedly, they had been given a taste of God's truth and wanted more; they couldn't simply drop it and go home. (It seems likely that this was God's plan, for these foreign Jews to be converted and to spread the Gospel when they do finally return to their own lands.)

Instead, they all wanted to stay and learn for as long as reasonably possible. But many of them couldn't afford to stay any longer, and many of those that were rich enough didn't have access to any of their money (no ATMs or e-transfers in those days).

So, those that did have access to money, or to possessions that could be sold, donated what they had to the common cause. They themselves wanted to stay and learn, so they understood how much everyone else also wanted to stay. And everyone understood the mission they had suddenly been assigned, to spread the Gospel message around the world.

Yes, they were living communally, but clearly this was a temporary arrangement, out of necessity rather than choice.

As the quotation from Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians confirms, the new Christian communities that arose from the resulting evangelism did not practice a socialist lifestyle — "If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.".

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