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Widely Held Myths About Ancient Sources

In late 2013 Dr. Craig Blomberg taught a thirty-session class for Credo Courses on the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels. This blog is a transcript (with some organizational elements and graphics added) of the first session of that course.


Widely Held Myths About Ancient Sources

This class is about the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels. This first session is “Widely Held Myths About Ancient Sources.”

In just about every period of time in our modern world there are popular events, claims, rumors, legends that become well know throughout the country and the world but are not based on the best historical evidence.

Perspectives Unrelated to Any Real Historical Evidence

And this is especially true when it comes studying Jesus, when it comes to studying Christian origins, when it comes to studying the Gospels of the New Testament. We can categories these in several ways.

One is to begin with perspectives that are unrelated to any real historical evidence. In just about every era of history one finds a handful of scholars and a lot of lay people who come up with the notion that there is not support even to believe that Jesus of Nazareth ever existed.

And in one of the later segments of this course we will look at the support outside of Christian circles, from non-christian authors in the ancient world, that demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that Jesus really existed.

Legendary, Mythical, and Hypothetical Perspectives

More commonly what we find are legendary, mythical, hypothetical suggestive stories. Some of these have been around from the ancient world on.

The New Testament Apocrypha

Shortly after the New Testament was completed in the first-century there were Apocryphal gospels. Apocrypha is simply a word that means hidden. And different kinds of legends, stories, myths were created, often attributed to some famous early Christian figure. And because they were supposedly revealed to just a handful of people or maybe just one person they could try to pawn themselves off as truth that had been hidden from the majority of the Christian world. Even though, in fact, there was no historical reliability to them.

These books in the ancient New Testament Apocrypha and books that were added to them in the middle ages covered such topics as:

  • Jesus the boy wonder who turned clay pigeons into living birds and they flew away.
  • Who got made at a playmate who kept taunting him and stretched out his hand and withered him up until his father was so upset that he begged Jesus’ dad Joseph to convince Jesus to undo the miracle.
  • These legends covered the so called hidden years of Jesus as a teenager and as a young adult.

The Gospels and the New Testament have one story of Jesus at age twelve teaching in the temple and otherwise we know nothing about him from his earliest years until he is about thirty and begins his public ministry.

So perhaps as was often believed in the middle ages, Jesus went off to India to study with eastern sages and gurus. Or maybe he became an Essene that monastic group of Jews that lived in the wilderness or lived in special neighborhoods almost ghettos in major cities.

Islam’s Misunderstandings of Jesus

All kinds of issues come up in Islamic circles. And Islam was birthed in the seventh-century with Mohammed in Arabia. In Islamic circles there is something called the Gospel of Barnabas, that we have:

  • A sixteenth-century manuscript in Italian
  • A fourteenth-century manuscript in Spanish

…nothing older than that. And Jesus in this document is portrayed as merely a prophet and not the Messiah even though the Quran, the holy book of Islam, does at least grant that Jesus was Messiah, but not son of God. That’s considered blasphemous in Islam.

So there are contradictions between the Gospel of Barnabas and the Quran that many muslims are not aware of. But the biggest issue is that this is a document of medieval fiction. There is no evidence to show that it is any older than the fourteenth-century. Probably based on various misunderstanding of the nature of Judaism and Christianity that circulated in Muslim circles beginning from the time of Muhammed onward.

Historians tell us that he [Muhammed] meet various Jews and Christians, that he was first sympathetic to because they were monotheists like he. But they were not entirely orthodox Jews or Christians. And it’s interesting the only miracle of Jesus that’s recorded in the Quran is that same story from one of the New Testament Apocrypha about Jesus breathing life into clay birds and them flying away.

The Modern Fiction of Dan Brown

When we move to the modern period there are all kinds of fictitious novels. None in recent years coming close to having the impact as Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code published in 2003 and translated into countless languages of the world and for a year or two period of time one of the world’s best selling books. A movie was made out of it and, ironically, it was the fact that the movie didn’t do all that well that doomed books sales to finally begin to tail off.

The Da Vinci Code: A Novel by Dan Brown

The Da Vinci Code: A Novel by Dan Brown

And yet, amazing things have resulted. Amazingly horrifying if you’re an educator. Prior to 2003 in would have been unheard of in lay circles to say nothing of the academy, university circles, for a reputable person to talk about the council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 that had something to do with the establishment of the canon, the books of the New Testament.

For people who have grown up in a liturgical church context they’re probably familiar with what is called the Nicene Creed. It’s an ancient and very respected statement of faith that is organized around the persons of the Trinity. It affirms that we believe in God the Father, that we believe in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord, that we believe in the Holy Spirit. The council of Nicaea was all about understanding and discussing trinitarian theology.

An Eastern Orthodox Icon of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.

The First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. / Courtesy of Coemgenus on en.wikipedia.

It’s true the new Christian Emperor Constantine did commission fifty new copies of the Bible to be penned and to be circulated to representative portions of the Roman Empire. But there is no evidence that there was any discussion about what books should be in a New Testament. We will come to that topic as well in a later lecture.

But because Dan Brown in the DaVinci Code fictitiously made up the claim that part of the council of Nicea was about discussing the canon, and that Constantine in a politically heavy-handed way imposed his will on the bishops gathered there so that in essence the winning side of a massive debate is what created the New Testament. Now here’s the scary piece. University professors quote that, teach students that that is how the New Testament canon was formed and there’s not a shred of historical truth to it.

Distortions of Recently Discovered Evidence

A second category is a bit more subtle. Here we speak of the distortion of “recently” discovered evidence. And I put recently in quotation marks because I’m thinking of the last sixty or seventy years, recent in comparison to the length of the history of the Christian church.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Probably the most famous of all of this recently discovered evidence involves the Dead Sea Scrolls. Shortly after World War II in the late 1940’s in very out of the way caves tucked into the side of cliffs in the Judean wilderness in Israel were discovered ancient pottery jars containing literally thousands of fragments and fortunately a handful of well preserved texts written almost all in Hebrew that included, on the one hand, more than two-hundred copies of parts or all of the various Old Testament books (the Hebrew scriptures) every book represented except for Esther.

A Fragment of Enoch from the Dead Sea Scrolls

Fragment of Enoch / Curtesy of the Library of Congress

But equally and perhaps for some people more fascinating were the scrolls that represented the literature of what appears to have been a community of Essenes (the monastic Jews to which we referred earlier) living near the Dead Sea (hence the name Dead Sea Scrolls) at a site in Israel known as Qumran.

The Dead Sea Scrolls containing these two kinds of documents on the one hand affirmed how well the Old Testament had been copied because some of these texts were nearly a thousand years older than any previously known existing Hebrew Bible. And in many cases the amount of changes that had occurred over the centuries was quite minuscule.

But for our purposes more interesting were the sectarian documents, the literature presumably composed by the members of this monastic community. And here is where we get distortion of true evidence. All kinds of information emerged from these texts about the nature of this one branch of Judaism largely in the decades and even a couple of centuries leading up to the time of Christ and the formation of the New Testament.

The Leviticus Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Leviticus Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls / Curtesy of the Library of Congress

But you can find books, you can find blogs, you can find claims that say the Dead Sea Scrolls contain Christian documents. They do not. You can find claims that what information emerges from these documents completely undermines the foundation of Christianity. It doesn’t. All of the texts are now available, have been translated, into many modern languages including English. Get a copy. Read it for yourself. Check my claims out.

What we learn about is prolific detail about one sect of Judaism that:

  • Bore some interesting similarities to some of the teachings of John the Baptist.
  • Saw themselves as preparing the way for the coming of not one but two Messiahs, a royal and a priestly one since the assumption was they would come from different tribes and different lines of the house of Israel.
  • We find messianic hopes attached to some of the same texts that Christian New Testament writers appeal to.
  • We find information about titles like the “Son of God.” It doesn’t always mean a divine being but can, in some contexts in Judaism, just be a synonym for messiah.

We finds all kinds of interesting information about the diversity of first-century A.D. and B.C. Judaism but nothing that is Christian and nothing that contradicts Christianity.

Gnostic Literature

Then there is the famous gnostic literature. And we will be saying more about this topic in coming talks as well. Gnosticism was a second-century A.D. mutation, if you like, or synthesis of various Greek philosophical ideas with bits and pieces of Christianity.

Gnostics were radically dualist. That is to say they believed the world of matter, the material world, and the immaterial world should be kept sharply differentiated. In their mythology about the creation of the universe matter was inherently evil, an emanation from an original godhead rebelled against the fulness of deity, in gnostic thought, by creating a material world.

And so redemption in gnosticism is not forgiveness of sin, as for Christians, it is liberation from the material world. Gnostics don’t look for a bodily resurrection they look for the immortality of the soul, freed from the fetters of the body and the material world and encouraged people to anticipate that experience in this life through oftentimes very ascetic world denying practices, extreme fasting, the promotion of celibacy and the like. Although somewhat paradoxically a minority of gnostics swung the pendulum to the opposite direction and said in essence, if matter doesn’t matter let’s indulge it as much as we can in this life since it won’t be around for eternity.

The Nag Hammadi Literature

At about the same time the Dead Sea Scrolls were being discovered and therefore very much overshadowed by that discovery, gnostic literature in Egypt at a site known as Nag Hammadi was emerging also in the late 40’s. And like the Dead Sea Scrolls it took several decades for the most fragmentary of all of its works to finally be translated and be available in modern languages including English. We will talk, as I mentioned, about some of the most significant documents later but here let’s talk about some of the most sensationalized ones.

The Gospel of Judas

The Gospel of Judas emerged as recently as the mid 2000’s. We knew about this text from the ancient second-century Christian writer Irenaeus, but we had never found a copy of any portion of it. It’s not an entire gospel. It doesn’t tell the entire story of the life of Christ but only of his last week. And it turns Judas into the hero. After all, it argues, somebody had to betray Jesus if he was to be executed as the atonement for the sins of the world. So Judas agree to do it, looking like the horrible person that he is portrayed as but secretly promised by Jesus that he would still get to go to heaven to make up for his treachery.

We have known since the early church that there was a sect of gnosticism, the Cainites, we don’t know for sure that they produced the Gospel of Judas but it certainly fit there milieu, that took most of the heros of the New Testament and turned them into villains and vise-versa. This teaches us nothing about the Jesus of the first-century but a lot about one gnostic sect perhaps in the late second-century.

The Gospel of Jesus Wife

Even more recently, in the fall of 2012, the Internet was abuzz with what was entitled, hence the quotation marks, “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” Did you know, Jesus had a wife? He didn’t. But a professor, Karen King, at Harvard University revealed to the world that she had been given a document on ancient parchment, apparently dateable to the fourth-century, in the Coptic language (one of the languages of ancient Egypt where many of these gnostic finds occurred) and it was very fragmentary, it had snippets of text with lots of things missing. But one line that included, possibly translated this way, the words, “And Jesus said, my wife…” nothing more in the context to determine what that was all about.

Well, scholars immediately pointed out that the same word for wife can mean woman and there is no guarantee that this was even talking about someone Jesus had married. Karen King herself made it clear that if this should turn out to be a genuine find all that it would prove was some belief in one branch of fourth-century gnosticism that Jesus had a wife. But of course that’s not what the media focused on in their reporting. They focused on the probability that Jesus had a wife.

It wasn’t more than two weeks after that find however that Francis Watson of the University of Durham in England proved convincingly to almost all scholars that this was a complete modern forgery comprised of snippets of a genuinely ancient gnostic gospel called the Gospel of Thomas literally cut and pasted together to make it say things and then seamlessly produced on fourth-century parchment to say something that was never intended and was never written in any ancient context.

Jesus’ Family Tomb

Yet one further example of distortion of recently discovered evidence also from the mid–2000’s. As a result of a famous book by an archeologist popularized on a Discovery channel television show of quote-unquote Jesus family tomb.

If Jesus was buried and then reburied in an ossuary (a small bone box that Jews used after a corpse had rotted or decayed 9–12 months after burial partly to conserve space in a small country in underground or cave like tombs) well then he obviously couldn’t have been resurrected from the dead the third day afterwards now could he?

The Lost Tomb of Jesus Documentary

The Lost Tomb of Jesus Documentary

And a tomb was discovered in the Talpiot neighborhood of south Jerusalem (as bulldozers were clearing the way for more modern buildings) that included these ossuaries, ornate bone boxes, of people with names like Jesus and Mary and Joseph and James and some others that corresponded to some of the disciples. Never mind that there would have been no reason for disciples to be buried with Jesus as family but okay maybe they created such tightly knit relationships.

The trouble is that all of the signs suggest that this was a Maccabean date tomb from the second-century B.C. and that the ornateness suggested a very wealthy family. None of which corresponds to Jesus’ circumstances. Why then the coincidence of names? Ancient Judaism did not have the range of names that many modern culture have. For women, Mary (after Miriam Moses’ sister) was by far the most common women’s name. Simon (as in Simon Peter), Joshua (which gets anglicized to Jesus by way of Greek), James, Joseph, and several other men’s names disproportionately accounted for a large percentage of the male population. If you actually do the statistics, look at the number of people in Israel over one century and the likelihood of having multiple burial sites with this cluster of names suddenly the coincidence doesn’t seem to be that significant.

Exercise Patience When Coming to Conclusions

We need to come to some conclusions for this first lecture. There are all kinds of claims and as time goes by there will be new claims that we can’t even anticipate. Be skeptical of every new claim. Maybe there will be some discoveries that are genuine. They do occur. But they are comparatively rare compared with exaggerated claims. And even genuine evidence that is discovered is often spun, is often skewed as it is reported by people in the first flush of enthusiasm for discovering something new. In an age in which we don’t like delayed gratification try to wait a few months or maybe even years for the scholarly community to settle out what some new discovery really means.

There are a lot of myths about historical evidence for the Gospels and for the events that they contain. But nothing has emerged in recent days that in any ways undermines the classic Christian claim for the credibility for the gospels from these various documents.

Did the Early Church Fathers Believe in Sola Scriptura?


Definition of Sola Scriptura

Sola Scriptura: the reformed Protestant belief that the Scriptures alone are the final and only infallible authority for the Christian. This does not mean that Scriptures are the only authority (nuda or solo Scriptura), as Protestants believe in the authority of tradition, reason, experience, and emotions to varying degrees (after all, “sola scriptura” itself is an authoritative tradition in Protestantism). It does mean that Scripture trumps all other authorities (it is the norma normans sed non normata Lat. “norm that norms which is not normed”).

Controversy of Sola Scriptura

Sometimes people get the idea that sola Scriptura was a 16th-century invention. While it was definitely articulated a great deal through the controversies during the Reformation, its basic principles can be found deep in church history. Take a look at some of these early church fathers who seemed to believe in the primacy of Scripture:

Related Resource: Six Myths About Sola Scriptura by C. Michael Patton Continue Reading →

The Death of the Apostles (Video) from Coffee and Theology

Lectures from Coffee & Theology

Every Tuesday at 6:30 PM the main room here at Credo House is filled with people who want to know more about Christianity.

Those who come likely have a variety of motivations. Maybe they want to strengthen their own faith through education. Maybe they’re going through a season of doubt and need encouragement. Maybe they disbelieve and are looking for more ammunition for their unbelief. Whatever the reason, everyone is welcome and questions are encouraged.

A couple weeks ago Michael Patton spoke about the historicity and importance of the death of the apostles. It just so happens (or not) that the article about this is our most viewed blog post of all time.

What might we learn from the death of apostles? Why would it matter if a group of people died for their beliefs? Don’t people do that for beliefs that Christians deny? You’ll just have to watch the video to find out.

Past recordings from Coffee & Theology are available in the members area.

Infographic on the Death of the Apostles

A big “thank you” to Brian Cragin from for creating this infographic for us.

How the 12 Apostles Died

Santa Claus – The Modern vs Historical Figure (Video)

Portrait of Santa ClauseTim Kimberley joined us at Credo House for Coffee & Theology recently to dispel common myths around Santa Claus.

If you like the movies which cover the “origin story” of your favorite superhero you’ll enjoy this video.

The real Santa Claus bears little if any resemblance to the St. Nicholas of church history.

As with so many aspects of church history the reality of who St. Nicholas was far more inspiring than the modern conception of a jolly fat man who gives presents to everyone.

Episodes of Coffee & Theology are only made available in the members’ area of Credo House online. We’ve made an exception for Christmas.

Santa Clause and Christmas Articles

Christmas is the biggest holiday in America (measured economically). Beyond it’s economic impact it’s also a time when Christian families set aside time to reflect on “the reason for the season”.


Six Views on What it Means to Be Orthodox


Have you ever been called a heretic? Have you ever had someone say that your faith is “unorthodox”? Have you ever wondered what it meant to be “orthodox”? No, I don’t mean Greek Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox. I am talking about orthodoxy which carries the meaning of “straight or right teaching and worship.”

The answer is not easy. For some people, “orthodoxy” is a shallow word meaning that you agree with them. For others, it means you agree with their particular denomination or local church confession. For many, it is a meaningless heavy handed designation that should no longer be used.

What does it mean to be orthodox in your beliefs?

There are really six primary views that I find represented in the church today. I am going to try to explain these views using both established and original terminology.

1. aOrthodoxy. Belief that there is no such thing as orthodoxy as a set of “right beliefs” or, at the very least, Christianity should not be defined by our beliefs except in a very minimalistic way. This view of orthodoxy takes a very pessimistic view of the Church’s need and ability to define truth, believing that orthopraxy (”right practice”) is the only thing that should be in focus. This pessimistic approach is influenced by the belief that defining the “boundaries” of Christianity according to beliefs has brought nothing but shame and unnecessary divisiveness to Christianity. This is illustrated most in the bloodshed of the inquisition, Crusades, and wars among Christians. To be labeled “orthodox” or “unorthodox” to the aOrthodox is an arrogant power play that is oppressive to the cause of Christ. Orthodoxy, therefore, is a contextualized subjective “moving target” that cannot be defined.

Primary Adherents:

Progressive Protestants (formerly known as Emerging Christianity)


  • Sees the importance of orthopraxy.
  • Understands the difficulty of defining Christian orthodoxy.

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4 Gospels or 4 Forgeries

4 Gospels or 4 Forgeries

4 Gospels or 4 Forgeries?

My name doesn’t carry much weight. I’m not that big of a deal in popularity or authority. There is no need for a press release when the words “by C. Michael Patton” appear on a post.

Because of my lackluster, I could have tried to manipulate things in order to ensure that you read this post. I could have said John Piper wrote it. After all, I do have control of the admin panel and could create Dr. Piper as an author. He’s so busy, he’d probably never know.

Dr Piper is so busy. He’d probably never know.

I might do that because my name doesn’t have as much weight as John Piper’s. I might have thrown out a broader net and said this post was by Billy Graham. Or I could have gone for a whole different audience, if I said it was by Pope Benedict XVI. In any case, were I to pull off such deception, my message would (in theory) be held in higher esteem. Now, I am a Christian. While sinning is something I (unfortunately) practice, I don’t think I could ever stoop to such a low place, even if it gave me more credibility (at least initially).

Free Video – Session 1 from the Church History Boot Camp

Forgeries, Pseudepigrapha, and Plagiarism in the Early Church

The practice of taking credit for the work of another is called forgery. Pseudepigrapha (“false writing”) is the formal name of the genre. Today, we simply call it plagiarism. It may surprise you to know that this practice was not unheard of in the early centuries of the church. Very often, people of undignified stature would attempt to give strength to their ideas and beliefs by attaching another’s name to it. This is especially the case in the story of Jesus.

Continue Reading →

More Young Foolish Leaders Please

AndrewBurkhartIs the pastor of your church a young foolish leader? Does that frustrate you? Maybe you are older. Maybe you are wiser. Does that make you secretly despise young foolish leaders? People who really think they can face any problem and keep advancing forward.

Martin Luther spoke into the “young foolish leader” phase as a 57 year old man. First, a little bit of back story to appreciate Luther.

Martin Luther was born in 1483. At the age of 34 he confidently nailed 95 theses to the castle doors in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther was outraged at the practices of the institutional church of his day. His greatest frustration culminated with the practice of indulgences.

Here’s how indulgences worked. Would you like to have your grandmother expedited through Purgatory? She’s been suffering in Purgatory for a little while but will probably be there for several thousand more years of purging before entering heaven. If you purchase an indulgence, however, your granny will stop gnashing her teeth and the church leadership will ensure her time is sped up.

Martin Luther despised indulgences. At the age of 34 he refused to remain silent. His 95 complaints were meant to be an internal discussion trying to reform the church of his day. Complaint #82 captures the essence of Luther’s angst:

Why does not the pope liberate everyone from purgatory for the sake of love (a most holy thing) and because of the supreme necessity of their souls? This would be morally the best of all reasons. Meanwhile he redeems innumerable souls for money, a most perishable thing, with which to build St. Peter’s church, a very minor purpose.

Luther was too young and foolish to keep his mouth shut. If the pope was powerful enough to free someone from Purgatory why does he need money? Out of love shouldn’t he just free everyone so they can worship God in heaven? Luther had visited Rome and he knew they were trying to raise $2 billion to build St. Peter’s Basilica. The money was raised for a building project. Yet heaven is forever, wouldn’t the pope choose the eternal over the temporary? Luther was too young and foolish to keep his mouth shut.

At the age of 57, 23 years later, Martin Luther was having dinner with his family and students. On this day in 1540 he reflected on those crazy years in his mid-30’s. He specifically reflected on his time at the Diet of Worms. Luther’s students loved hearing all the dinner table side stories. They would secretly go back home after dinner and write down all the funny, strange and profound things Luther mentioned at the dinner table. These have become known as “Table Talks.” Hundreds of them survive to this day.

Before I share Luther’s story over dinner in 1540 you need to have a little bit of background about the Diet of Worms. Luther’s writings were grabbed by friends and unknowingly the Printing Press spread his 95 theses all over the world. His ideas were a spark getting ready to light the whole world on fire. Luther, the German monk, was summoned to the town of Worms in Germany. The institutional church had expected to get this young monk to recant of all his writings.

Luther was brought into a room full of church officials looking over all his writings on a table. They simply asked Luther if these were his writings. He said yes. Now was the golden moment. The leaders would tell Luther to recant. He would recant under the pressure of his leaders. Word would quickly spread that Luther had recanted of all his writings. The uprising would be over and life would go back to normal. If Luther didn’t recant, however, he would simply be burned at the stake.

The Diet of Worms did not go as the leaders planned. Luther refused to recant of all his writings. His writings were full of quoted Scripture. He argued that he couldn’t just recant of all his writings carte blanche because he would inadvertently be recanting of all the Scripture mentioned in his writings. Luther required the leaders to show him all the areas he was wrong and then he would consider if he should recant of each individual idea. The leaders refused, they wanted him to recant of everything in his books. Luther, the young foolish punk leader, refused saying:
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I think it’s ok to teach Relative Truth

FoucaultOne of the easy softballs to hit out of the park in Apologetics 101 training is when two people are role playing and the statement is made, “I think truth is relative. There are no absolute truths.”

The ridiculously easy response to this statement is, “Well, you just made an absolute truth statement!” Kaboom, the foolish non-Christian is just pummeled under their own faulty logic. They made an absolute statement when they said there are no absolute statements. Wow, what an intellectual lightweight. Now, when I share Jesus with this person they will know I have just conquered their worldview so they will be ready to adopt my worldview.

The problem with this very easy Apologetic talking point is it simply doesn’t work in many situations. Many times the young apologist has only left the relativist feeling frustrated, angry and demeaned. Sometimes I think the more appropriate response is, “I think truth & morality are also relative. Foucault was a pretty good observer of humanity.”

Michel Foucault (pronounced foo-ko) may be one of the most influential 20th century thinkers you’ve never heard of. He was interested in studying the development of ideas. How and why do we know what we know? He held a chair at Collège de France with the title, “History of Systems of Thought.” He wrote several books on diverse subjects such as: psychiatry; medicine; the human sciences; prison systems; as well as the history of human sexuality.

Foucault’s observations and skepticism challenged many long-standing ideas. His first book wondered why some people are considered crazy? What if these “crazy” people lived at a different time in a completely different culture? Would they still be considered crazy?

How about, for example, John the Baptist? His clothes were nasty. He lived out in the desert eating bugs. He yelled at people to repent. They responded by letting John hold them under water. In first century Israel John was viewed as one of the greatest prophets who ever lived. Transfer John the Baptist to New York City and he’d be locked up in a mental hospital. Craziness is relative.
Continue Reading →