Diegesis and Mimesis: A Very Brief Introduction

Another major part of working on a dissertation in the humanities is that you will usually incorporate some form of literary theory into the central thesis of your argument. I have discussed in a previous post some current theory of what constituted “fiction,” as opposed to “history” and “myth,” in the ancient world. In this post, I will likewise discuss the difference between diegesis and mimesis as narrative techniques. These words will no doubt sound rather technical to those who do not specialize in literary studies, but they are very important for understanding how the Gospels are written.

To provide a brief definition of both of these terms, Sarah Bryant-Bertail (“Spatio-Temporality as Theater Performance,” pg. 6) writes:

“A division between the mimetic and the diegetic space can be made … [T]he mimetic space is that seen in performance by a spectator or projected by a reader onto an imaginary stage. It includes the scenography and the fictional locale this immediately refers to. The diegetic space is all that would not be seen in a real or projected theater but that is nevertheless established in the spectator/reader’s imagination through verbal and non-verbal signs systems, either in description or through imagery.”

All of this may still sound rather abstract, and so, below is a chart that I made last academic year for how these terms can be applied to ancient narratives:

Diegesis vs. Mimesis

The terms diegesis and mimesis are often employed to performance in theater, as Bryant-Bertail has done above. But they are also highly relevant to the narrative techniques used in novels, as well as historiography [1].

The essence of diegesis is to “tell” or “report” information within a text, whereas the essence of mimesis is to “show” or “perform.” These forms of narrative can manifest through multiple literary devices. Diegetic narrative is generally told in the voice of the narrator, whereas mimetic narrative is generally told in the voice of the subject. Indirect speech is more common in diegetic narrative, where the narrator reports or paraphrases the words of the subject. In contrast, direct speech is characteristic of mimetic narrative, where the exact words of the subject are performed. The effect of speaking words in the voice of the subject places mimetic narrative within the scene of the plot, while the diegetic use of the narrator’s voice generally provides information that is not voiced or shown within scene, but provided through external description. The tone of mimesis is generally dramatic, whereas the tone of diegesis is descriptive. Both diegesis and mimesis are used across multiple literary genres, but in varying ways depending on the nature of the genre.

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Understanding the Value of Biblical Parallels

Here on Κέλσος I frequently discuss parallels between the New Testament, the historical Jesus, and Christianity and other literature, historical figures, and religions of the ancient Mediterranean world. I am likewise currently working on a dissertation that compares the Gospels to popular-novelistic biographies, which seeks to identify the most suitable biographical subtype for situating the Gospels on the broader spectrum of Greco-Roman biography.

Part of the value of comparing literature and historical figures is that parallel situations often shed light on each other, which can help us to understand the context in which Christianity emerged and Christian literature was written. This context aids in interpretation, historical criticism, and sociological analysis. Something important to recognize about such comparisons, however, is that there are many nuances that both sharpen and impose limitations upon the parallels.

One misconception that should be cleared up, from the get go, is that a parallel between Jesus or Christianity does not necessarily entail a “double” or perfectly identical situation. Historical figures, literature, and events can share several characteristics in common, while still differing in many other regards. Most parallels are thus limited in their implications, and so must be treated with the proper nuance to understand their relevance.

Amitay 3One example of this is the comparison between Jesus and Alexander the Great. There are clearly many differences between these two figures, such as Alexander being a king and general, whereas Jesus was an itinerant peasant. And yet, these two figures also have much in common, such as the stories about their divine birth and their modeling on previous mythical archetypes. As such, the comparison between Alexander and Jesus has both its advantages and its limitations. The advantages can help us explain certain aspects of Jesus’ role in Christianity, whereas the limitations entail that there are still many other considerations to be made, in order to have a complete picture of either figure.

Since comparing literature and historical figures requires a great deal of nuance, and appreciation for shades of meaning and degrees of difference, I think it will be valuable to lay out some criteria below for how to make these distinctions, in order to apply parallels properly in literary and historical analysis. After discussion of these criteria, I will also discuss what I think will be some of the advantages and limitations of my dissertation.

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The Historical Reliability of Popular Biographies, Part 2: Redaction Criticism

In my previous post I discussed the complexity of historical criticism, and how even texts of the same literary genre can vary substantially in terms of historical reliability, based on their date of composition and their available sources of information. In this follow-up post, I will discuss some further historical-critical issues that we can compare between the Alexander Romance and the NT Gospels. This post will not be the final installment of my series discussing the historical reliability of popular-novelistic biographies, since there is a large amount of diverse issues that need to be covered. In part 2 of this series, however, I will discuss redaction criticism and how it can affect the historical reliability of ancient texts. Redaction is a process by which later authors or editors interact with earlier texts, sources, and traditions and shape them into later narratives. During this process, new details can often be added to the narrative and earlier stories can become embellished with subsequent material. Since this progression has a tendency to make stories grow over time, and thus to become more and more legendary, it is highly relevant to the historical criticism of ancient texts.

Alexander's historians 2

An intriguing aspect of our extant literary sources for Alexander the Great is that they virtually all date to the Roman period (146 BCE – 330 CE). This is not because there were no histories of Alexander that were written during the Hellenistic period (336-146 BCE). In fact, Alexander’s campaigns were documented by a wide variety of eyewitness and contemporary historians, whose works no longer survive due to disappearance in textual transmission. Our extant historians for Alexander, however, such as Plutarch and Arrian, quote a large number of previous authors and sources (such as as Callisthenes, Ptolemy, and Cleitarchus), and so, even though the works of Alexander’s original historians no longer survive, we still have a large number of fragments preserved of them. These fragments are available in edited volumes, such as Felix Jacoby’s Fragments of the Greek Historians, and are used by modern historians when reconstructing the life of the historical Alexander.

It remains quite interesting to consider, however, why later Roman authors took such a strong interest in Alexander. Most Roman historians during the late-Republic and early-Empire wrote primarily on topics of Roman history (although the Roman biographer Cornelius Nepos did write short biographies of famous Greek statesmen in his Lives of Eminent Commanders). Alexander is an exception, however, in having a full-length Latin history (and not just a short biography) written about his life. As Richard Stoneman (“The Latin Alexander,” pg. 167) explains:

Latin Fiction“The career of Alexander the Great provides a unique exception to the general rule that Latin writers of history wrote (before the Christian period) only on Roman topics … [O]nly he became the subject of a full-length history in Latin. And this occurred more than once. The first Latin Alexander historian was Quintus Curtius Rufus … who composed a lengthy and important historical account of his career, probably in the first century CE.”

Alexander was not just a fascination of Roman literature, however, but also served as an overt model of Roman statecraft, especially during the imperial period. The Roman biographer Suetonius claims that the emperor Augustus (Rome’s first emperor) used an image of Alexander as a seal for his letters (Aug. 50.1), and even arranged a special viewing of Alexander’s entombed sarcophagus, while staying in Alexandria (Aug. 18.1).

Following the Roman conquest of the Greek East and the Hellenistic kingdoms that were derivative of Alexander, a question that nagged many Roman historians was: What would have happened, if Alexander the Great had marched West and waged war against Rome? As Ken Dowden (Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature, pg. 186) explains, “Alexander never went to Sicily, Italy, or Africa, though a western expedition was alleged to be among his last plans, and ‘What if he had?’ later became a popular debating topic” during the Roman period. This topic is seen even in the historian Titus Livy’s History of Rome, where he spends an unusual amount of space discussing Alexander, even though most of his history is devoted to Roman topics. As Diana Spencer in The Roman Alexander: Reading a Cultural Myth (pg. 51) explains:

Roman Alexander“Livy’s ‘digression’ in Book 9 is inspired by a vision of an Alexander who can prove useful for Roman self-definition as a historical race, and as a people who, through good management of their ‘Alexandrian qualities,’ offer a new, improved model. Livy opens his excursus with a question and a claim–he tells us that he has often considered but never formulated the question of what the outcome of a war between Alexander and Rome, man versus state, would have been (9.17.2) … If we remember that this narrative of Livy’s is designed to present the story of Rome from its foundation, then this digression on so splendidly individualistic an autocrat, a digression that never succeeds in entirely dimming his lustre, is particularly noteworthy.”

And so, Alexander always had a strong reception in the Roman West, and was varyingly seen as a predecessor, rival, and model of the Roman Empire. This fascination with Alexander’s character, as Spencer (pg. 41) explains, highlights “the modulations taking place in a pattern of ongoing reinvention of Alexander as a model for the interrogation of power and authority at Rome.” All of this context is relevant for understanding the Alexander Romance and one of its most glaring historical inaccuracies: Alexander’s journey to Rome (1.28). As will be discussed in the analysis below, we have good reason to think that this episode is a later redaction to the AR, which was directed toward an audience living during the Roman period.

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The Historical Reliability of Popular Biographies, Part 1: Framing the Comparison

Recently on Κέλσος I have been discussing the generic features that the NT Gospels share with Greek popular-novelistic biographies. Such features include the simple vocabulary and sentence structure found in these texts (as I discussed in my most recent post), which distinguish popular biographies from the more elevated and critical styles of historical biographers, such as Plutarch and Suetonius. I have likewise discussed how popular biographies more closely resemble ancient novels in their frequent use of direct speech and dialogue, versus the indirect speech and paraphrase that is more characteristic of ancient historiography. Another major criterion that I have discussed is formal anonymity and open textuality. The Synoptic Gospels, especially, are distinct from elite biographers in their open borrowing and redaction of material from earlier texts, which is very different from how authors like Plutarch and Suetonius, who wrote in a unique and original style, would compose. In contrast, popular biographies–such as the Alexander Romance, Life of Aesop, and Certamen of Homer and Hesiod –would all freely adapt material from earlier textual sources.

The features that I have described above are all text-immanent, in that they pertain to the language, style, and composition of a text. But another major question that will no doubt arise from this comparison is: How do other popular-novelistic biographies compare to the Gospels, in terms of their historical reliability?

McGrath 8

James McGrath, The Burial of Jesus (pg. 57)

A major difference between historical criticism and genre criticism is that historical criticism is concerned primarily with the “real” world outside the text. History is concerned with investigating real people, places, and events that have existed in the physical world. We often use ancient literature to learn such information, especially when we lack other forms of archaeological and documentary evidence. As I discuss in my essay “History, Probability, and Miracles,” however, the study of ancient literature is not a very reliable method for knowing about the past, particularly because ancient authors could easily fabricate false information by erring in their description, embellishing persons and events, spreading unverified claims and rumors, or even through outright lying, such as producing forgeries. In many cases, however, we only have ancient literature to learn certain things about the past, when no other forms of evidence are available. In the case of the historical Jesus, our entire knowledge of him is dependent solely upon ancient literature, and primarily Christian literature written from a devotional point of view.

A major point that should be emphasized in discussing genre criticism, however, is that historical accuracy is not something that defines a literary genre. There are, in fact, several forms of fictional narrative that discuss real people, places, and events in the physical world. Take William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, for example. Although this play includes a number of inaccurate details about Caesar’s assassination, it for the most part hews toward depicting a real historical event. In contrast, simply belonging to the genre of history does not entail that a text is historically accurate. Plutarch’s Life of Theseus and Life of Romulus, for example, are both historical biographies about mythical individuals who probably did not exist.

What especially makes historical accuracy inadequate for identifying literary genre is that it is concerned with matters extrinsic to the text itself. In contrast, the language, style, and compositional features of a text are intrinsic to the text itself. For identifying the literary genre of the Gospels, therefore, these internal features and how they compare to other literature from the same time period should take precedent. And so, as I have argued, the Gospels most closely resemble Greek popular-novelistic biographies, in terms of these internal features.

ThomasBut, that being said, I am likewise interested in the historical criticism of popular-novelistic biographies, as well. And so, I will share below some of the research that I did last academic quarter in a historical Jesus seminar that I took under NT scholar Christine Thomas. In the seminar, I investigated the historical reliability and verisimilitude of the Alexander Romance, and how this text compares to the NT Gospels. This research topic was especially fitting, because Dr. Thomas has written a book on the ancient novel and gospel literature, which makes comparisons with the Alexander RomanceThe Acts of Peter, Gospel Literature, and the Ancient Novel: Rewriting the Past. Below I interact with Dr. Thomas’ own research in my analysis.

In this first post, I will discuss the theoretical meaning of “historical reliability,” and how it is far more difficult to draw comparisons between two texts on the basis of historical reliability, than it is to draw comparisons on the basis of genre and literary conventions. I will also lay out some of the difficulties for comparing the Alexander Romance with the Gospels, in terms of historical reliability, but will further explain why it is the best comparison text for the Gospels available, out of our limited selection of popular-novelistic biographies that survive from antiquity. In some subsequent writing, I will compare and contrast the historicity of the AR and the Gospels, in greater detail.

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Grammatiki Karla on Ancient Greek Popular Literature, Part 1: Language and Style

Writing Biography in Greece and RomeSeeing that I will be comparing the NT Gospels to the genre of Greek popular-novelistic biography in my Ph.D. dissertation, a major component of this project will be identifying the features and characteristics of “popular literature.” Fortunately, a new academic book on Greco-Roman biography just came out this year (published just last May) which deals with this topic–Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization. There is a collection of chapters in the book, written by different authors, on a variety of issues pertaining to Greco-Roman biography. Luckily, the book deals with Kleinliteratur, in addition to elite and scholarly biographies, and so there is a chapter on the Life of Aesop

The chapter about the Life of Aesop is written by Grammatiki Karla, and is titled “Life of Aesop: Fictional Biography as Popular Literature?.” As the title suggests, Karla’s chapter deals with the defining attributes of “popular literature” and how they can be identified in the Life of Aesop. Although Karla’s chapter only briefly mentions the Alexander Romance (pg. 49) and the Gospel of Mark (pg. 56), many of the attributes that are discussed likewise bear heavily upon these texts. In this post (part 1), I will summarize Karla’s discussion of “popular literature,” particularly under the first subsection, “Language – Style,” and how I think that her analysis can be applied likewise to the genre of the Gospels. In a subsequent post (part 2), I will also summarize the other subsections in the chapter.

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Idealized Portraits of Jesus, Alexander the Great, and Aesop

I have been busy working on my dissertation recently, which has taken away some time from blogging, but today I will (briefly) share something interesting from my research.

The topic of my dissertation is an analysis of the generic and thematic features that the NT Gospels share with the Alexander Romance and the Life of Aesop. This topic also has overlap with other books in the New Testament, particularly the Book of Revelation, which I previously compared to Alexander’s Letter to Olympias in book 2 of the Alexander Romance, in my essay “Eschatology in Alexander’s Letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation.” An interesting theme that is shared between the ancient literature about Jesus Christ, Alexander the Great, and the fabulist Aesop is the use of idealized portraits in their physical descriptions. All of these descriptions are over the top, and are meant to convey symbolism.

Although Jesus’ physical appearance is not discussed in the canonical Gospels, there is a very interesting portrait of Jesus that is given at the beginning of the Book of Revelation. When John of Patmos is writing to seven churches in the province of Asia, he describes a vision in which Jesus appears to him. This Jesus is not the one who is depicted before his death in the Gospels, but is instead the resurrected Jesus who has ascended to Heaven, and who now appears with some considerable bodily enhancements. Here is the portrait of Jesus that John describes (Revelation 1:12-16):

Portrait of Jesus“And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.”

Now, clearly this portrait of Jesus is meant to be taken symbolically. In fact, just a few lines down, Revelation 1:20 explains that the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches that John is writing to. The reference to “someone like a son of man” is to Daniel 7:13-14, where a figure “like a son of man” is described, who will be a cosmic judge that will be given power over all the nations of the world. This figure is also described in Daniel 7:9 as having “clothing as white as snow” and “hair as white as wool,” and so it is clear that the author of Revelation is modeling Jesus on the figure described in this passage.

What is interesting about both the Alexander Romance and the Life of Aesop is that they similarly use embellished portraits to convey symbolic imagery. This is in large part a function of popular-novelistic biographies, which are not meant to engage in the kind psychological and critical analysis typical of historiographical Greco-Roman biographies, such as those of Plutarch and Suetonius, but instead are intended to depict symbolic histories of their subjects. And so, in the Alexander Romance, for example, we do not get a terribly accurate physical description of the historical Alexander’s appearance, but instead a romanticized portrait that conveys his greater nature. Here is how Alexander is described (Alexander Romance 1.13):

Screenshot 2016-06-26 at 9.19.44 AM“When [Alexander] became a man, his appearance was not like Philip’s and, indeed, not even like his mother Olympias’ … he was a type all of his own. Indeed, he had the shape of a man, but he had the mane of a lion and eyes of different colors–the right eye black, the left grey–and teeth as sharp as a serpent’s; he displayed the energy of a lion. And there was no doubt of how his nature would turn out” [1].

Now, as with Jesus’ description in Revelation, Alexander is also being modeled on a previous mythical archetype in this passage. The reference to the “mane of a lion” is clearly meant to allude to the demigod Hercules, who wore the pelt of a lion. The “teeth as sharp as a serpent’s” are perhaps also a reference to Hercules strangling snakes in his cradle. I have discussed in my essay “Patterns of Myth-Making Between the Lives of Alexander the Great and Jesus Christ” how, even during his lifetime and among eyewitnesses, legendary stories about Alexander emerged that compared him to figures like Hercules and Achilles. This description in the Alexander Romance is clearly based on such stories. Like Jesus, Alexander’s portrait his symbolic. As the passage explains, his appearance revealed how his true “nature” would turn out, perhaps suggesting that Alexander would travel the world as a second Hercules.

The description of Aesop in the Life of Aesop is certainly less flattering, and may appear as less than ideal. But this first appearance is deceiving (and meant to be). Aesop is depicted as misshapen and remarkably ugly, to the point of being symbolically so. Here is how Aesop is described (Life of Aesop 1):

Portrait of Aesop“The fabulist Aesop, the great benefactor of mankind, was … of loathsome aspect, worthless as a servant, potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped–a portentous monstrosity. In addition to this he had a defect more serious than his unsightliness in being speechless, for he was dumb and could not talk” [2].

Now, why is this appearance so deceiving? Because Aesop’s outer ugliness both disguises and contrasts with his true inner beauty. Although Aesop may appear hideous, he is filled with wisdom and the power to speak in fables. At first, he is mute and cannot speak. But later in the biography, Isis (or Fortune) grants Aesop the power of speech, and soon he begins to outwit both his masters and great kings alike with his cleverness and fables.

Once more, like Jesus and Alexander, Aesop is being modeled on a previous archetype. In this case, Aesop’s ugliness is probably an allusion to the philosopher Socrates. Like Aesop, Socrates was thought to be a very ugly man, but this appearance was misleading, and contrasted with his true inner nature. In Plato’s Theaetetus (143e), Socrates is described as being far from handsome, with a “snub nose” and “protruding eyes.” What’s interesting is that Aesop’s comparison with Socrates was probably a later tradition about his life. As Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, pg. 133) explains, “Aesop’s excessive ugliness is likely … a Hellenistic addition to the characterization; there is no certain traces of it in the older tradition.” And so, as the stories about Aesop evolved over time, his appearance was eventually idealized into symbolic ugliness, very likely in imitation of Socrates.

What I find interesting about all of these idealized portraits is that they emerge from the subject being modeled on previous archetypes. Jesus is modeled on the figure “like a son of man” described in the Book of Daniel, Alexander is modeled on Hercules, and Aesop on Socrates. This pattern is very similar to the one that I discussed in my previous essay about how legendary development often occurs when an individual is modeled in imitation of previous mythical archetypes. Such imitation apparently has the ability not only to fashion legendary stories and anecdotes about a person, but also embellishments of their physical appearance, as well.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] For this passage, I have used Ken Dowden’s translation.

[2] For this passage, I have used Lloyd Daly’s translation.

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Patterns of Myth-Making Between the Lives of Alexander the Great and Jesus Christ

Greek Alexander RomanceRecently on Κέλσος I have been discussing the Alexander Romance and some of the similarities that this mythical biography of Alexander the Great shares with the New Testament Gospels. The earliest Greek version of the Alexander Romance that we possess dates to the 2nd-4th centuries CE, which is a number of centuries after Alexander’s death. Nevertheless, the Alexander Romance functioned as an ‘open text,’ meaning that it was added to and redacted for several centuries following its earliest composition. Due to this fact, the first version of the Romance that we possess almost certainly was not the first that was written.

The leading Classicist to study the subject, Richard Stoneman, dates the Alexander Romance to as early as the beginning of the 3rd century BCE, only a generation or two after Alexander’s death (323 BCE). Even if the Alexander Romance had been written much later, however, the text certainly makes use of eyewitness and contemporary source materials that were written during or shortly after Alexander’s lifetime. One of the sources used by the Romance is Onesicritus, who was a personal traveling companion of Alexander, who nevertheless claimed that Alexander had met with mythical Amazonian warriors on his journeys. As B.P. Reardon (Collected Ancient Greek Novels, pg. 651) points out, “It comes as a shock to realize how quickly historians fictionalized Alexander.”

The first version of the Alexander Romance that we possess contains a number of geographical and chronological errors. Since the text evolved through several centuries of composition, however, many of the greatest errors in the narrative are simply later additions. One example is Alexander’s journey to Rome (AR 1.28), which never historically took place, since the historical Alexander the Great only journeyed to the East. This error is almost certainly a later addition, however, which was added to the text during the period of the Roman Empire. As the Alexander Romance evolved over the centuries, new stories were added to the text in order to have Alexander visit new locations where the Romance was being read. The first versions, therefore, probably contained less geographical and chronological errors than the later versions.

The Alexander Romance likewise contains symbolic locations, which are not meant to be taken literally. As Alexander travels beyond Persia into lands unknown to the Greco-Roman world, he begins to encounter increasingly marvelous phenomena in the narrative. These include descriptions of lands where “the sun does not shine” (2.39) and giant humans with “forearms and hands like saws” (2.32). These descriptions, however, are not referring to literal places and people. As I explain in my previous essay, “Eschatology in Alexander’s Letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation,” such imagery is used figuratively to illustrate Alexander’s journey to the end of the Earth. This portion of the narrative has many eschatological themes similar to the Book of Revelation, which also describes marvelous phenomena, such as creatures with “six wings covered with eyes all around” (4:6-8), which likewise are not meant to be taken literally. Furthermore, some of the recensions of the Alexander Romance even omit such details. Recension α, for example, does not include the Letter to Olympias, which contains many of the most marvelous descriptions in the Romance. Recension α, therefore, is a relatively less fabulous version of the text than recension β.

Six-Winged Creatures

For the purposes of myth-making, however, the dating and accuracy of the Alexander Romance is largely irrelevant to its value as a comparison text for the Gospels. This is because the eyewitness and contemporary sources used by the Romance date back to stories that were being told about Alexander during his lifetime and shortly after. The myths that were developing about Alexander during this period bear many similarities to the stories that were told about Jesus 40-60 years after his death. To be sure, Alexander is not a duplicate of Jesus, due to the fact that there are important differences between any two figures of history. But the patterns of myth-making that surrounded both individuals and developed rapidly after their lives share a number of similar themes.

The most common form of myth-making seen between Alexander and Jesus is the modeling of their characters upon previous heroic archetypes. Even before the Alexander Romance was written, Alexander was being compared to figures like Hercules and Achilles. Likewise, prior to the composition of the Gospels, Jesus was being compared to figures like Moses, David, Elijah, and Elisha. This modeling upon heroic archetypes resulted in a number of inventions and embellishments being told about each figure, in order to liken them to their mythical counterparts. Below I will lay out some of the common myth-making patterns shared between Alexander and Jesus.

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