Historian Demolishes Historical Jesus – Gospel Paradigm

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by Neil Godfrey

Hopi: Image via Wikipedia

Sorry about the sensationalist headline but, being a mortal, I couldn’t resist it this time. (I know one swallow doth not a summer make, but humour me till the rest turn up.)

I wish to thank Dr James McGrath, Clarence Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, for drawing my attention to a case study published by oral historian Jan Vansina in Oral Tradition as History (1985). (Note I used italics instead of quotation marks for the title this time so that there can be no doubt that I have actually read the book.) {for the uninitiated the link is to Dr McGrath’s post in which he points out that my earlier use of quotation marks for the title of the book is a “suspicious” indicator I had not read it}

Most students and many interested lay readers of New Testament scholarship know that there are two things that are generally accepted in the guild:

  1. the first gospel was composed roughly around 40 years after the death of Jesus
  2. the first gospel is more about a “Jesus of faith” than an historical Jesus since it is so riddled with mythological embellishments

In this post I show that a renowned oral historian publishes a case study that demonstrates the unlikelihood that mythological embellishments could possibly have been added to an “oral report” within 40 years of the event.

So what might the research of oral historians contribute to this critical NT and HJ discussion?

Keep in mind that an axiom of the historical Jesus scholarly guild is that the first Gospel — usually taken to be that of Mark, though some say Matthew, but for our purposes no matter which — is not to be taken as a straight historical record of the words and deeds of Jesus. It is filled, we are told (as if we needed to be reminded when we read of walking on water, talking to Being in heaven, predictions that the central character will descend from heaven in cataclysmic judgment, etc) with mythological embellishments. That is the very reason why, we are told, historical Jesus scholars cannot work like other historians but must assume the role of “detectives” and come up with additional criteria to convince the sceptics.

But at the same time historical Jesus scholars give the impression they feel like they are the ugly ducklings in the wider field of historical studies and must still justify their methods by appeals to the “real historians” who know next to nix about what biblical scholars are saying to each other. So we sometimes read of a “decontextualized” (one would never think to use those nasty “misrepresented/quote mining” word/s) reference that oral historian Jan Vansina garnered that supposedly most fortuitously supports some aspect of the New Testament paradigm “oral tradition” being the link between the life and death of Jesus and the first Gospel.

Let’s just get that clear. NT scholars as a rule assert that the first Gospel was written as a result of its author having access to oral traditions about Jesus that had been handed down since the actual time of Jesus.

But they also assert that the Gospels are not in themselves “historical records” of Jesus but are theological or mythological embellishments.

Now since one oral historian authority sometimes appealed to by HJ scholars is Jan Vansina let’s look at a case study of his that most people, I think, would consider comparable to the HJ-Gospel scenario hypothesis just outlined.

On page 19 of the work cited above oral historian Jan Vansina presents readers with a case study involving the Hopi tribe.

An illuminating case involves the Hopi of Arizona. Sometime between 1853 and 1856, ten Hopi were attacked by a party of Navaho as they returned to their home at First Mesa from a visit to the army Fort Defiance. At least four were killed. The Hopi village chief was among the dead. . . .

Two versions of the event were recorded late in 1892. First a generalized one giving the bare facts, followed three weeks later by the reminiscences of one of the survivors, Djasjini, who had been an adult at the time of the events. The second version is long, has greater detail, but essentially still narrates a sequence of eventsSo almost forty years after the events there was still an eyewitness in the town. In fact, there were two. Hani, who had been a boy badly wounded in the affray, was still alive, had become a chief of the Singer’s Society, and had directed the whole Wuwutcim ceremony of 1892 at which occasion the first generalized version had been told. . . . (pp. 19-20)

So let’s get this clear.

The historical events took place around 1853 – 1856.

Two oral versions of the event were recorded in 1892.

“So almost forty years after the events there was still an eyewitness in the town.”

Now comes the interesting part:

A third version now clearly oral tradition was published by a Hopi in 1936.

That is, long after the departure of any eye-witnesses to wield a controlling presence on the tale. Around 80 years later.

Note also that Vansina had just finished explaining that an “oral tradition” (as distinct from an oral report) is something that is passed on after there are no longer any eye-witnesses alive. Any oral report overlapping with the existence of eyewitnesses is not an “oral tradition” as he defines it. Of oral reports, he says:

Interviews of this nature are always compared to available written or printed information and, if available also information from radio and television. (p. 13)

So what do we find long after the decease of the last eye-witness?

The tradition from personal narrative to collective narrative is completed. The differences with the previous versions [those 40 years after the events] consisted mainly of the addition of elements that altered the whole character of the story. . . . His role was slightly idealized so that it recalled the little Twin War of mythology.” (p. 20)

Notice that! It was only after the death of the last eye-witness to events that we find — a generation later — the first trappings of mythological embellishment to the historical events.

So again let’s be clear:

A third version — NOW a “clearly oral TRADITION” (not “oral history” — see Vansina’s definitions of the two as I pointed out earlier) — was published by a Hopi in 1936.

“The tradition from personal narrative to collective narrative is completed. The differences with the previous versions [those 40 years after the events] consisted mainly of the addition of elements that altered the whole character of the story. . . . His role was slightly idealized so that it recalled the little Twin War of mythology.” (p. 20)

Thus it was not till well after the death of all eye-witnesses that we begin to see the first mythological trimmings added on to a historical tale.

What this means for historical Jesus studies

So if Vansina’s example is a valid comparison, we should see a recording that is pretty much a straight factual account of Jesus without any mythological trappings for as long as there are any surviving eyewitnesses — up to 40 years later.

It would be more like 80 years, or certainly well after the departure of the last eye-witness — again on Vansina’s example, if it is valid (and McGrath appears to think it has some relevance) — before we can expect to see mythological elements incorporated into the tradition.


If we use the above case study as a guide we should not expect any record of Jesus within 40 years of his death to be anything more than a straight, bare-bones historical narrative. Yet this is clearly not what we have in the case of the Gospels, not even with the earliest written Gospel. Our earliest surviving written accounts of Jesus are predominantly mythological in character. If we use the Hopi study as a control, and if we are sure that Jesus had an historical career, then we should not expect any written accounts like the Gospels to appear until long, long after the time that HJ scholars say they did appear.

So we are left with three options — given, of course, the validity of the Hopi case study:

    1. Either we reconsider the date of the earliest Gospel and set it around 100 c.e. at the earliest;
  1. Or we keep ca. 70 c.e. as the date of the first Gospel and remove the crucifixion of Jesus back to the time of his birth;
  2. Or we — surely not! — ask if the first Gospel was not grounded in genuine historical oral reports after all.
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33 thoughts on “Historian Demolishes Historical Jesus – Gospel Paradigm”

  1. Since the Gospel of Mark was highly unlikely to have been written in Palestine, a c. 70 AD date for Mark can still be kept, providing that the last eyewitnesses to a supposed Historical Jesus within the reach of the author of “Mark” were already dead for some years.

  2. I suggest you look up the ‘eyewitness reports’ gathered around the Italian priest “Padre Pio.” I’m sure you’ll agree that a lot of mythological elements were already present while many, many eyewitnesses were still alive–and while Padre Pio himself was still alive! I’m afraid I’m not convinced the Vansina’s example is at all analogous to the gospels. Religious figures accrue myths and legends at an incredible rate.

        1. Not the U571 ones, no. They were created to make money.
          I would expect them to give rise to oral traditions.

          As for the ones Price mentions, I don’t know. Maybe someone saw a way of making some cash or getting some other benefit by cooking up stories.

          The Hopi case does not seem sufficient to support such a strong conclusion as yours. The Hopi are fairly concentrated geographically, and there may not have been a motive to embellish the stories.

  3. This is related to a similar argument from apologists that it is impossible for mythological embellishments to occur so close to the events. Therefore since the earliest gospel was written sometime around 70 this means there are very little to no embellishments in it. At this point, as a counter, the story of Nedd Ludd is brought up, where well within 40 years there were huge embellishments in the story.

    Of course, the apologists say, the story of Nedd Ludd isn’t analogous to Jesus because Ludd didn’t exist. And that is why mythological embellishments could occur within 40 years in the case of Ludd. The apologists then conclude that Jesus really did cure blindness with spit, walked on water, and that the tomb was found empty and he is risen. Checkmate, atheists!

    But, like you point out Neil, that line of argument is premised on the earliest gospel being penned around 40 years after the events it narrates. So if this oral tradition logic holds, ironically, a 2nd century date of the earliest gospel would be evidence for a historical Jesus c. 33… yet a date of c. 70 for the earliest gospel would be evidence for a non-historical Jesus (or Jesus really did exist and really did all of the things in the earliest gospel).

    Relying on oral tradition puts one between the rock of a non-existent Jesus or the hard place of late gospels.

  4. I had thought it too obvious to introduce here but in other fora I see this “it” is not so clear, so for the sake of clarity I will add this:

    Of course there have been, and are today, people who have been attributed mythical and divine trappings in their lifetimes. I have often referred to Alexander and Hadrian. But most HJ studies I know of stress that Jesus was not considered divine etc by his followers in his own life-time. The HJ model is that mythological attributions accrued over time as the “oral tradition” (Vansina would not allow anything within lifetimes of eyewitnesses be defined as an “oral tradition”, contra most HJ scholarship that I have read) grew.

    It seems to me that HJ scholars have “quote mined” or selectively cited those parts of Vansina that appear to support their models but have overlooked the entire thrust of his overall arguments.

    1. Neil: “. . .this ‘it’ is not so clear . . .”

      You have to spell things out for some people, and even then they just don’t get it.

      Beyond merely the misuse of Vansina based on a cursory reading that they hope will support their case, we should ask ourselves why so many NT scholars latch onto these studies in oral history, oral tradition, eyewitness memory, etc. It’s because they’re stuck with a compressed timeline that has to accommodate eyewitness followers, the subsequent oral tradition telephone game, the “Cambrian Explosion” of post-crucifixion Christianity, and the emergence of written gospels tending toward proto-orthodoxy. They desperately need some plausible scenario that makes the evidence fit their presumptions.

      Of course it would never cross their minds that the easiest way to explain the riotous diversity in the first century CE is the lack of eyewitnesses to control the story and, further, that the reason for the absence of eyewitnesses is simply that there was nothing to witness, at least nothing tangible, historical, or corporeal.

      In this way they are much like creationists. HJ scholars can imagine ancient Christians inventing all sorts of additional material when it suited them, but they can’t imagine that these creative people — the same people who generated the fictitious quotes, ingenious back stories, and impossibly wondrous deeds — also might have woven the entire myth from OT scraps and inspirational threads. Likewise, creationists will grant the existence of micro-evolution, but they’ll deny that macro-evolution (what real scientists would just call “evolution”) can occur. They have to explain their own “riotous diversity problem” — namely, the variety of living creatures that must have arisen quite soon after Noah’s ark came to rest on Mount Ararat.

      Creationists twist what little they do understand about science to fit their steadfast belief in a 6,000 year-old-earth, created in six days, against a multitude observational clues to the contrary. Similarly, NT scholars skim other disciplines to find sophisticated (if somewhat twisted) excuses for the early diversity of Christian thought, as well as reasons to treat the canonical gospels as reliable “biographies” or trustworthy “micro-histories” (despite their irreconcilable contractions).

      Alas, neither party is capable of confronting their own presuppositions head on, because they have too much personally invested in their current worldview.

  5. “It would be more like 80 years, or certainly well after the departure of the last eye-witness — again on Vansina’s example, if it is valid (and McGrath appears to think it has some relevance) — before we can expect to see mythological elements incorporated into the tradition.”

    That would go against the evidence assembled by Robert McIver in his recent study “Jesus, Memory and the Gospels” published by SBL.

  6. Significant also, surely, are the appeals to eyewitnesses by both Paul (who makes special mention of most of the 500 witnesses to the resurrected Jesus as still being alive) and Luke (whose prologue appeals to the authority of eyewitnesses) Whether these were genuine appeals or not, they do highlight the importance of the concept in relation to the story of Jesus. It is surely fatuous rationalisation to suggest that the “traditions” that fed into the Gospels were carried on apart from any appeal to, knowledge of or interest in surviving eyewitnesses.

    Such an ad hoc idea is rebutted by the evidence that we do have as indicated in this post, and contradicts the basic premise of the work of oral historian Jan Vansina:

    His premise is that an oral tradition is something that exists after the death of the last eyewitness, and this is subject to mythological adaptation. As long as there are eyewitnesses to a report then we have “oral reports”, not “traditions”. Biblical scholars appear to have a quite different definition and their theories are entirely self-serving and in defiance of relevant research, I suspect.

  7. The Hopi recount at various stages reflects a single event. I am afraid that relating that to possible witness/tradition testimony of a rich melange of stories is only drawing on one process to produce a pseudo history. Its clear from criticism that many traditions make myth; some historical myth, some pure myth.

  8. Ed Jones Dialogue – Vridar is discussion of a reconstruction of post execution Jesus traditions based largely on extracts from works of two of our top NT scholars, given our present historical methods and knowledge. A basic conclusion emerges: None of the writings of the NT, the letters of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT, are reliable sources for HJ reconstruction. Ogden: “The sufficient reason, they all depend on sources earlier than themselves and thus are not the original and originating witnesses that the early church mistook them to be. Betz: “The reasons for our lack of knowledge (of the teachings of the HJ} are of a hermeneutical sort, and cannot be overcome by an excess of good will (apologetics). The Gentile Christian authors of the Gospels transmitted to us only that part of the teaching of Jesus which they themselves understood, they handed on only that which they were able to translate into the thought categories of Gentile Christianity and which they judged worthy of transmission. – – Gentile Christianity (which became orthodox Christianity) as known above all from the letters of Paul, the Gospels, as well as later writings of the NT – – from these texts his (Jesus’) original teaching can neither be reconstructed nor abstracted in its entirety.” Should anyone yet have the care of an open mind, after the mass of critical detail of what is claimed to be the contents of the NT, to the read more I will be pleased to attempt to so reply.

  9. I’m usually just a lurker here. Almost everyone that comes here is better educated in these esoteric matters than I am. But I think, reading this post, how and why does one historian’s pronouncement as to what is oral tradition become law for everyone? Was there then no oral tradition even in the lifetime of Selassie? I guess so if Vansina says so. Maybe there is another name for what gave rise to Rastafarianism? And I think way way too much is concluded going from one specific example (Hopi’s) to a general rule.

    I am sorry to so far not be on the bandwagon for this post, because usually I learn so much here.

    1. It’s actually part of a longer conversation that Neil has been having with Dr. McGrath. The good doctor from time to time will throw a tantrum and say that Neil doesn’t understand how real historians do research, and Neil will ask for specifics. Dr. McG., will evade the question continually until finally stating with mock exasperation that Neil should go read a book.

      It just happens that in this case, the recommended book by Vansina does not make the case that Dr. McG. thought it did. On the contrary, real-world case described above confirms what Neil has been saying all along.

      Naturally, more evasion and name-calling will follow. McG. will intimate that Neil is either a fool or a liar, and when Neil asks for specifics . . . Well, you know how it goes.

  10. Tim’s response to exrelayman is right. (I am not around to respond in a more timely manner at the moment, being on holiday in Bali — but I have found an open internet cafe here going on to midnight and am taking the opportunity now.)

    Vansina is considered by a number of biblical scholars to be something of an authority who gives credibility to the hypothesis re the way oral traditions might have worked. McG said if I had read Vansina and a work by Howell and Prevenier I would understand or see in mainstream historians the same methods and assumptions used by HJ scholars. I found the very opposite, and I further found that McGrath’s own citation of Vansina in an academic article was akin to tendentious “quote mining” – taking Vansina’s words out of context. Meanwhile McG demonstrated he had not even read the other book he advised me to read, and that also made a mockery of the way biblical scholars work.

    So McG posted on his blog an accusation that I had misrepresented them. I thought I should also ask Dr McGrath to provide evidence for his accusations that I had misrepresented anyone — and he has refused to do so. He most recently said I was mentally unbalanced or a troll for insisting he give evidence for his accusation.

    When McG finally said Vansina’s example of the Hopi was a case study supporting the oral tradition model used by HJ historians I pointed out that it did the exact opposite. He has been a bit cross with me since. I have also suggested to McG that if there were any other case-studies that did indeed support the model (that is, the way mythologiizing enters oral reports within the lifetime of witnesses) then these would be well publicized by HJ historians. Still no response.

    Bring on Hector Avalos. HJ scholarship — well lots of it anyway — is based on circular reasoning and ad hoc rationalizations.

    1. Thanks to both responders, and to Neil for having this blog.

      I have been aware of the antipathy engendered in your exchange with McGrath. I think you have been the more reasonable party and pretty much stand where you do HJ vs myth – not sure, but some myth arguments are well reasoned and undeserving of the contempt they receive. It is a darn shame that attachment to ‘winning’ seems to subvert what could be honest dialogue in search of truth.

      Such is the internet when religion and politics are at issue. Still, I am so glad for the internet and how much I can learn from people I would never have heard of without it.

      Returning to the post, I guess you are saying, if you concede Vansina’s rule, it supports you more than McG.
      NOT that the rule is necessarily accurate.

      1. No, Vansina doesn’t have a “rule” like the critierion of embarrassment. He does stress repeatedly the need for reference to information external to the oral tradition itself in order to make assessments about its value as a historical source. This contradicts the way HJ scholars work in this particular context. They have no external controls that are truly independent and secure on which to make their judgments. Further, the only example from Vansina that a particular theologian was apparently able to muster in support for the general HJ time frame from Jesus to the first gospel being bridged by oral tradition actually contradicts the HJ paradigm re the way the supposed oral tradition worked for Christianity’s first 40 years or generation.

        Moreover, it is significant that Vansina would notg even accord a period of 40 years from an event likely to produce an “oral tradition” at all unless all eyewitnesses were dead throughout that time.

        The more one digs into Vansina the less relevance one sees he has for the HJ oral tradition paradigm — worse, his case studies fly in the face of HJ models.

  11. My Comment #10 would seem to make this discussion irrelevant, Whatever the content of Paul’s letters, those authentic are not, as well as the Gospels, and the later writings of the NT, all are not reliable sources for HJ reconstruction. That is what my reconstruction is about.

    1. Even HJ scholars concede that the gospels are not face-value historical sources — this is why they draw analogies of their work to that of archaeologists or detectives. They see themselves as “digging beneath the surface” of the narratives. The process is circular, of course. But as they say, it is not sufficient to show why one’s own argument is valid; it is also important to show the invalidity of the others.

  12. The writings of the NT are not just “at face value” not hisorical but their entire context is to propogate the mythical Christ of Faith not the HJ. Hence whatever they contain is of questionable relevance to the Jesus of history. Thus for me the discussion is beating a dead horse.

  13. one fourth option would be that some of the temporal distance required for this effect to emerge was simply replaced by geographical and cultural distance in conjuncture with less and less reliable communication and a comparably insignificant initial event

    it seems weird to me to assume that we can simply apply the same timescales for jebus and a relatively modern occurrence

    the eyewitnesses do not have to be dead, just not available
    there could just be to few to find one without considerable effort, because there were very few to begin with, or they are somewhere else or just nobody cares

    1. ahh, sorry

      i misread the last option
      “the first Gospel was not grounded in genuine historical oral reports after all” clearly includes what I’m thinking of”

  14. You’re not even at all aware of the gaps between Judaic, Hebrew-speaking, Torah Perushim vs Hellenist Greek-speaking Tzedoqim collaborators with the Roman occupiers vs the post-123 CE Greek-speaking Hellenist Roman gentiles who toppled the original Netzarim to establish the original Christians and Church in 135 CE. Never even heard of these have you? You’ve take no account of how these redacted and changed the accounts as the stories traveled from one to the other. Why don’t you read Oxford historian James Parkes (Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue), Eusebius and– AFTER you’ve developed that historical foundation–my book, Who Are the Netzarim? (www.schuellerhouse.com)?

    The current levels of study don’t deserve to be called scholarship.

    1. I’m pretty sure Neil has heard of the Pharisees and the Sadduccees. Does preferring a different, less widely known transliteration make one more learned?

      Beyond your sneering bluff of expertise, Judaic/Hellenist is a false dichotomy. The origin of the split certainly lies in the response of different groups to Hellenization, but there’s a lot of water under that bridge between c.160 BCE and the second revolt against Rome. And I very much doubt there were very many Hebrew speaking (do you mean Aramaic?) Pharisees in the diaspora at the later date; Zadokites were also likely mostly bilingual in Aramaic and Greek, as no doubt were many Pharisees, so I wonder what distinction you mean to draw between them based on language.

      1. His comment is kinda odd. It was the Perushim (i.e. “separated ones”; Pharisees) who were the more Hellenist of the two. They’re the ones who accepted many Hellenizing ideas like belief in the resurrection of the dead and punishments/rewards in the afterlife; things that the more legalistic/literalistic Tsadokim (“righteous ones”; Sadducees) rejected since those ideas were not in the Hebrew Bible.

        One would only get the two mixed up if one was already convinced by a straightforward reading of the Christian gospels. Where the Pharisees are depicted as diehard legalist who were following the law too strictly while no unkind words were said of the Sadducees.

  15. פקיד ירמיהו — 2012/01/31 @ 3:53 am

    man you a crazy zionist, why would ALLAH want israel for the jews? didn’t Yhwh STEAL land from the pagans? So if the muslims stole it from yhwh, what is the problem?

  16. I think the conclusion is flawed. The Hopi case is of a confined group. Hopi “missionaries” didn’t take their message far into neighboring territories, but the Jesus story was taken far from Jerusalem where it started. Look at the proposed locations for the authorship of the gospels–Damascus, Alexandria, perhaps even Rome.

    1. I acknowledge that one swallow does not make a summer. Yet this case-study of the Hopi was presented to me by a professor who teaches a Historical Jesus class and who explicitly pointed out that this particular study was comparable to what we find in the Gospels. He has effectively conceded he knows of no other case studies so close in comparison. Let’s ask ourselves: would we expect the oral reports being relayed far and wide to be of a nature that would invite listeners to seek out eye-witnesses? HJ scholars — well some of them — love to point to Paul’s appeal to the 500 witnesses of the resurrected Jesus as confirmation that there were indeed such visions. Is that what the oral performers did? Did they conclude their tales: And to this very day you can go to Palestine or Cyprus or Antioch or Damascus or Alexandria or Corinth and meet someone who claims to have actually seen this very Jesus, or knows of a person who did!

      The fact is that the HJ model is predicated on eyewitnesses maintaining a control over the reports that circulated. Yet the same HJ model asserts that it was those very same eyewitnesses who began to mythologize — in hindsight — their Jesus and his deeds. Now this is critical. It is NOT the same as we find with heroic historical persons such as Alexander or some of the Caesars such as Hadrian. They encouraged and fanned the mythology about their persons in their own life-time. Yet that is exactly the scenario that HJ scholars insist did not happen in the case of Jesus! That is significant. All the mythologizing developed after the death of Jesus and in spite of all the HJ scholars say about Jesus during his life-time.

      Now the Hopi case study indicates that this is not a likely scenario. Do we have other studies that truly are comparable to the HJ model? That is, that a hero rejected exalted claims and titles for himself, that his disciples did not understand or accept his claims while alive, yet after his death they exalt him in a way that neither he nor they ever envisaged during his lifetime?

      Besides, finally waking up here — were not those who actually went out to those scattered areas themselves supposed to be eyewitnesses or in immediate touch with eyewitnesses? Would not that effectively mean there was some sort of brake applied to their imaginations?

  17. Scientifically speaking the Jesus story carries no water obviously, I have a telescope and can see stars, a microscope and can see cells, a brain and so I realize there is no God I have known this most of my life because my father said so. Except, after a world of hurt, I began to ask for God, I mean I just begged for Him, and I felt something I had never felt before, a light. Begging and shouting more for a few seconds I even felt that light surround my head and I can just imagine some 8th century believer telling a painter “you must draw this it feels like light all around my head” being the start of why originally saints got a halo of light drawn around their head. Now I have felt hunger, pain, broken bones, fevers, some really bad stuff that is common to the human experience but untill I felt that light from Jesus I had felt nothing remotely similar to that, fibers of my body that I assume are nerves felt just ALIVE with light, theres no better way to put it. You have found one desperate myth generation case and carried it around and overboard, Why not take the civil war for your case study then you could have hundreds of thousands of familys to talk to and while you might hear “Grand daddy killed 10 reb’s all by himself” and reasearch to find out that infact Grand dad was with 5 guys who stood agaisnt 10 in a skirmish you arent gonna hear “Grandpa began to pick up rocks that turned into lightning bolts and these flew from his fingertips” very often. And if you need to be reminded people 150 years ago in the civil war were believers in myth, religion, whatever you want to call it. So, why not just begin to ask God where you are wrong with your disproval of his existance you might, I hope, get supprised=)

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