Who Wrote That? Verbal Affinities Between the Lukan Prologue and Acts

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by Tim Widowfield

Saint Luke the Evangelist
One of the disciples hands Luke a sworn, signed, eyewitness statement. — Saint Luke the Evangelist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, Robert Bumbalough asked, “. . . What of the style and grammar of the Lukan prologue vs. that of the Lukan infancy narrative vs. subsequent sections? Is there evidence [that] portions stem from the same pen?” This question reminded me of a personal, informal study I undertook a short while back, comparing the word selection in the Lukan Prologue to the rest of the New Testament. What follows is a brief recap of that study. Caveat lector: I’m not a professional text critic, just a curious amateur; I’m interested in your take on the matter too.

Is the prologue original to the text of Luke?

I start with the hypothesis that the original core of Luke probably did not contain the prologue and perhaps not even the genealogy or birth narrative. My working theory, at least for the purposes of the study, is that the later author who wrote the Acts of the Apostles added introductions to both works and “ironed out” the language in the original gospel of Luke to conform better to his linguistic preferences.

Word selection is not proof of authorship, but it can be a strong indicator. When we write we tend to follow known, comfortable patterns. These patterns include sentence length, preferences for correlative clauses versus clauses concatenated with conjunctions, and word choice. For example, if you ever see me use “author” as a verb, you’ll know my body has been taken over by aliens.

Food for thought: If the short introductions to Luke and Acts, which were addressed to a fictional Theophilus (“Dear God-lover . . .”), can be shown to be the products of a second-century redactor (to add verisimilitude and “a touch of class”) then what does that say about historicists’ assertions that we have “no reason to doubt” Luke when he says he knew of “many” gospels and talked to “eyewitnesses”?

Textual analysis: Verse 1

Here’s the Greek text of Luke 1:1 from Westcott and Hort:

Ἐπειδήπερ πολλοὶ ἐπεχείρησαν ἀνατάξασθαι διήγησιν περὶ τῶν πεπληροφορημένων ἐν ἡμῖν πραγμάτων,

Epeidēper polloi epecheirēsan anataxasthai diēgēsin peri tōn peplērophorēmenōn en hēmin pragmatōn,

As a reminder, here’s the English translation of the first verse:

Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, (KJV)

We’ll look at each word (other than common words such as articles, conjunctions, and prepositions) to see where they were used elsewhere in the NT.

ἐπειδήπερ (epeidpēper) — “since, inasmuch as” — This is a hapax legomenon in the NT.

ἐπεχείρησαν (epecheirēsan) — “have taken in hand, have undertaken” — The verb ἐπιχειρέω (epicheireō) appears only here and in two verses in Acts:

And he was talking and arguing with the Hellenistic Jews; but they were attempting to put him to death. (Acts 9:29, NASB)

But also some of the Jewish exorcists, who went from place to place, attempted to name over those who had the evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, “I adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preaches.” (Acts 19:13, NASB)

Many times in the NT, the verb “to seek” (ζητέω/zéteō) is translated into English as “try” or “attempt,” as in John 7:19 when Jesus accuses the people of trying to kill him. The verb “to seek” appears 117 times in the NT in various forms, while ἐπιχειρέω (epicheireō) is relatively rare, appearing only in the prologue to Luke and in Acts.

The verbal affinity here appears to be quite strong.

ἀνατάξασθαι (anataxasthai) — “to compile” — Another hapax legomenon.

διήγησιν (diēgēsin) — “account, narration” — Yet another hapax legomenon.

πεπληροφορημένων (peplērophorēmenōn) — “to fulfill” — This word appears nowhere else in the gospels. Oddly enough, other than the prologue, πληροφορέω (plērophoreō) is found only in the epistles to the Romans, the Colossians, and 2 Timothy.

The verbal affinity here may be purely coincidental; on the other hand, it could indicate the mark of the “ecclesiastical redactor” (Perhaps Polycarp? See Trobisch’s The First Edition of the New Testament) who domesticated Paul’s letters, wrote the pastorals, edited Luke, and wrote or at least compiled the final version of Acts. Naturally, this explanation is simply conjecture.

πραγμάτων (pragmatōn) — “matter, deed” — This word appears nowhere else in Luke, but it does appear once in Acts. (It also shows up nine times in various epistles and once in Matthew.)

Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” (Acts 5:4b, NASB)

The congruity, in this case, could simply be a coincidence. The sense of the word in the prologue seems to be more along the lines of “matters” or “events,” while the word in Acts has the connotation of a specific “deed” or perhaps “misdeed.”

Textual Analysis:  Verse 2

The verse in Greek (Westcott & Hort):

καθὼς παρέδοσαν ἡμῖν οἱ ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς αὐτόπται καὶ ὑπηρέται γενόμενοι τοῦ λόγου,

And in English (KJV):

Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word;

παρέδοσαν (paredosan) — “handed down, passed down” — In the NT the word παραδίδωμι (paradidōmi) in the vast majority of cases refers to the handing over, or often the betrayal of a person (e.g., Jesus) to his accusers or the people intent on doing him harm. Only in a few cases does it refer to the transfer of traditions or doctrine from one person or group to another. And I can only find such cases in the epistles. For example:

Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances [traditions], as I delivered them to you. (1 Cor. 11:2, KJV)

Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. (Jude 3, NASB)

I’m not sure exactly what to make of it, but one could argue that authors of epistles had more cause to write about teaching being “handed down,” so perhaps the correlation is explained better by simple happenstance.

ἀρχῆς (archēs) — “from the beginning” — Of the 27 appearances of ἀρχῆς (archēs) in the NT, most of the time (at least in the gospels) it refers to the beginning of creation. In the epistles, ἀρχῆς appears with reference to rules and “first principles.” Oddly enough, only in the Johannine writings does it frequently refer to the beginning of the ministry of Jesus or the beginning of belief. For example:

And ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning. (John 15:27, KJV)

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (1 John 1:1, KJV)

The affinity here could mean nothing, but it is worth noting that Luke never uses the word again, but Matthew and Mark use the phrase “from the beginning [of creation]” when Jesus propounds his new decree on divorce. However, Luke omits the phrase in Luke 16:8, which seems to be an extremely condensed version of Mark 10:1-12, unless Mark Goodacre is right and Luke was familiar with Matthew 5:32.

αὐτόπται (autoptai) — “eyewitnesses” — Another hapax legomenon.

ὑπηρέται (hypēretai) — “servants, officers, attendants” — Translators normally use the word “officer” for ὑπηρέτης (hypēretēs). The vast majority of the time, NT authors are referring to officials of the state, temple attendants, etc. These are outsiders, hostile to Jesus and the disciples. For example, when Jesus is mocked and struck:

Some began to spit at Him, and to blindfold Him, and to beat Him with their fists, and to say to Him, “Prophesy!” And the officers received Him with slaps in the face. (Mark 14:65, NASB)

The one exception in the gospels is found in John:

Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight . . . (John 18:36a, KJV)

The usage of this word to denote servants of Christ is quite rare, and found only in Acts and in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister [servant] and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; (Acts 26:16, KJV)

Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers [servants] of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. (1 Cor. 4:1, KJV)

Choosing this word over δοῦλος (doulos) seems to go against the grain. Followers of Christ are willing “slaves,” while government thugs are “officers.” It is hard to imagine any of the synoptic evangelists using the word ὑπηρέτης (hypēretēs) in reference to a servant or minister of Jesus Christ.

Textual Analysis:  Verse 3

The Greek (SBLGNT) text:

ἔδοξε κἀμοὶ παρηκολουθηκότι ἄνωθεν πᾶσιν ἀκριβῶς καθεξῆς σοι γράψαι, κράτιστε Θεόφιλε,

The English (KJV) translation:

It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus,

ἔδοξε (edoxe) — “it seemed good” — The specific form of this word (the idiomatic edoxe, followed by the infinitive) is found only in the prologue and in Acts:

Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas . . . (Acts 15:22a, NASB)

The variant form — ἔδοξεν (edoxen) — is found only in Acts:

It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, (Acts 15:25, KJV)

“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: (Acts 15:29, NASB)

But it seemed good to Silas to remain there. (Acts 15:34, NASB) [Note: This verse is probably an interpolation. See Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd Ed., p. 388]

“It seemed good” to the writer of the prologue and Acts to use the word edoxe or edoxen to introduce a thought. This peculiar tendency again suggests some verbal affinity between the prologue of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.

παρηκολουθηκότι (parēkolouthēkoti) — “having investigated, having understood” — This word appears in the NT only here and in the pastoral epistles:

In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following. (1 Tim. 4:6, NASB)

But thou hast fully known [closely followed] my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, charity, patience, (2 Tim. 3:10, KJV)

Once again we’re seeing some affinity with the epistles rather than with the gospels in general or with Luke, specifically. Could it be that the redactor or redactors of the anti-Marcionite canon had a different vocabulary from the evangelists?

ἄνωθεν (anōthen) — “from the beginning, from on high, again, from top to bottom” — Besides “from the beginning,” which is the sense of the word in the prologue, there are three other common meanings for this word.

  1. From above: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure . . .” (James 3:17a, KJV)  Also recall that when Jesus tells Nicodemus people need to be born from above, a misunderstanding arises from the second meaning, “again.”
  2. Again: “. . . how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again [literally, πάλιν ἄνωθεν, ‘again anew’] to be in bondage?” (Gal. 4:9b)
  3. From top to bottom:And the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom.” (Mark 15:38) This is the only meaning of anōthen in the Synoptics, except for the Lukan Prologue. Oddly enough, in Luke’s parallel passage in which the temple curtain was torn down the middle, anōthen is missing.

And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst [μέσον (meson)]. (Luke 23:45, KJV)

By far the most common usage is the first, “from above.” In the NT, the only other place we find the meaning “from the beginning” is in Acts:

Which knew me from the beginning [ἄνωθεν], if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee. (Acts 26:5, KJV)

ἀκριβῶς (akribōs) — “carefully, earnestly, diligently” — This word and its sister — ἀκριβέστερον (akribesteron), meaning “more accurately” or “more earnestly” can be found once in Matthew, twice in Paul’s letters, and five times in Acts. For example:

This man was instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in the spirit, he spake and taught diligently the things of the Lord, knowing only the baptism of John. (Acts 18:25, KJV)

And he began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him untothem, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly. (Acts 18:26, KJV)

But Felix, having a more exact knowledge about the Way, put them off, saying, “When Lysias the commander comes down, I will decide your case.” (Acts 24:22, NASB)

καθεξῆς (kathexēs) — “in succession, in order, just after” — This word appears only in Luke (once more) and Acts (three times). It appears that the only other occurrence in the Gospel of Luke is at a redactional seam at the beginning of chapter 8.

Soon afterwards [ἐν τῷ καθεξῆς], He began going around from one city and village to another, proclaiming and preaching the kingdom of God. The twelve were with Him, (Luke 8:1, KJV)

The first three verses of this chapter stand out as a rather awkward transition point between the anointing of Jesus’ feet and the parable of the sower. It’s as if the author abruptly decided to cram in a laundry list of unrelated things he wanted to tell us, including:

  1. Jesus traveled from town to town.
  2. The Twelve were with him.
  3. Mary Magdalene had seven demons.
  4. Here’s list of women who were supporting the cause.

These items are presented in a breathless, oh-by-the-way fashion that appears less “artful” than what we have come to expect from Luke as an author. While it’s possible the original author chose the word kathexēs at this point, we can’t help but notice that the author of the prologue (our hypothesized final redactor), the author of Acts, and the author of the clumsy introduction to Luke’s chapter 8 are the only writers in the NT who used this word.

γράψαι (grapsai) — “to write” — This word appears once in Luke (here in the prologue), once in Acts, twice in the catholic epistles (3 John and Jude), and once in Mark. Curiously, where Mark uses the word — i.e., in reference to writing a bill of divorce — Luke does not have it. As we have noted above, Luke presents a greatly shortened version of the teaching on divorce.

In Acts, the author uses the word very much the same way as the author of the prologue, namely in the sense of writing a narrative or an exposition of facts.

“Yet I have nothing definite about him to write to my lord. Therefore I have brought him before you all and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that after the investigation has taken place, I may have something to write. (Acts 25:26, NASB)

Naturally, many forms of the word γράφω (graphō) are littered throughout the NT — nearly 200 times. However, the infinitive “grapsai” appears only these five times.

κράτιστε (kratiste) — “most excellent” — As you might expect, this word appears only in Luke, here in the prologue, and in Acts. Besides Theophilus, Felix and Festus are addressed as “most excellent.” Of course one could argue that there was no reason for any other NT author to use this form of address (unless you count all the times people addressed Pilate or Herod). In any case, here again we have a rare word in the NT that appears only in the Lukan prologue and in Acts.

Textual Analysis:  Verse 4

The Greek (W&H) text:

ἵνα ἐπιγνῷς περὶ ὧν κατήχηθης λόγων τὴν ἀσφάλειαν.

The English (NASB) equivalent:

so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.

ἐπιγνῷς (epignōs) — “you might know” — Verse 4 contains the only NT occurrence of this specific form of “know”; however various forms of ἐπιγινώσκω (epiginóskó) appear throughout the New Testament with no particular preference noted.

κατηχήθης (katēchēthēs) — “you have been taught or instructed” — There are eight occurrences in the NT of this word — κατηχέω (katécheō) — in its various forms. One is in the prologue; three are in Acts; and the rest are in the Pauline epistles. Finding verbal affinity among the prologue, Acts, and Paul’s letters was not something I had expected.

ἀσφάλειαν (asphaleian) — “certainty, safety, security” — In the NT, this word and its sister — ἀσφάλεια (asphaleia) — appear only three times. Besides the prologue we have these two occurrences:

Saying, The prison truly found we shut with all safety, and the keepers standing without before the doors: but when we had opened, we found no man within. (Acts 5:23, KJV)

For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. (1 Thess. 5:3, KJV)

I know I just said it, but it bears repeating. I never would have predicted finding verbal affinity between Acts and Paul’s letters. My original theory was that I might find commonality of vocabulary between the prologue and Acts, but finding it in the Pauline corpus is completely unexpected.

Conclusion and Next Steps

Given this preliminary investigation, I conclude that strong verbal affinities exist among the Lukan Prologue, the text of Acts, and various parts of the epistles, including the so-called “undisputed” letters of Paul. Further steps for research include an analysis of the vocabulary of the nativity in Luke, the L-only parables, and the unique parts of the passion and resurrection narratives. Beyond verbal affinities, we could also examine syntax, sentence length, and affinities with works outside the NT.

Finally, I realize I’ve probably been treading over a well-worn path that seems new and interesting only to me, but I wanted to analyze the text deliberately and carefully (akribōs) on my own. I’ve just ordered David Trobisch’s The First Edition of the New Testamentand I’m looking forward to learning the arguments he advances concerning the composition of the canon. (See Robert M. Price’s review.)

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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20 thoughts on “Who Wrote That? Verbal Affinities Between the Lukan Prologue and Acts”

    1. It might be, or it might not be. I’m not fully persuaded either way. I often suspect, however, that many NT scholars believe that the recipient was a real person (either in the first or second century, depending on the scholar’s inclinations) mainly because they want it to be true.

      1. If it is addressed to Theophilus does this mean the original greeting is lost or this is an addition, or perhaps that the gospel of Luke in the form we roughtly have is from a much later time. Could the other fragments that are dated earlier that are labelled Luke, be possibly fragments of an earlier source, in much the same way Q is given as a lost earlier source.

        1. The esteemed R. Joseph Hoffmann wrote a dissertation back in ’84 called Marcion: On the Restitution of Christianity: An Essay on the Development of Radical Paulinist Theology in the Second Century. I can’t afford a copy, but the reviews praise it to the high heavens.

          As I understand it, Hoffmann argues that Marcion used Urlukas, and that the “the Luke-Acts of the orthodox canon represents an effort to contest two of Marcion’s most important teachings: the unreliability of the Twelve and Paul’s sole right to the title of Apostle.” (JBL Vol. 105, No. 2 (Jun., 1986), pp. 343-346) Hoffmann contends that the orthodox redactor(s) added material to the end of the gospel to beef up the role of the Twelve, giving them “special instruction,” and elevating their stature.

          I don’t know whether Hoffmann specifically addresses the issue of the tacked-on introductions, but it would seem necessary that if Urlukas was retooled to become the two-volume orthodox Luke-Acts (the way The Cage became The Menagerie?), then the salutations to Theophilus are necessarily suspect.

          1. Pardon my ignorance, but what exactly do you mean by “unreliability of the twelve” ? Are you referring to writings presented in their name or something else.

            1. He’s referring to the rough treatment the disciples get in the Synoptic Gospels, especially in Mark. They all flee at Gethsemane, Peter denies him, and Judas betrays him. They continually misunderstand what’s going on. For example, when Jesus tells them to beware the leaven of the Pharisees, they act like the Twelve Stooges and say, “Duhhhh, he means we forgot to bring bread!”

              Marcion believed that the Jesus gave up on the Twelve and rebooted the whole franchise with Paul, who was the only apostle who truly understood Christ’s message.

              1. Tim,

                I am working on a paper length treatise on Judas in “the Betrayal” scenario. “Judas” was James in all four gospel accounts. So was ‘Lazarus’. I got the stuff on it down pretty well now. First Apocalypse of James, Gospel of Judas, Hegesippus, and modern: Robert Eisenman, support it. I can email or post it if you want to look at it. It’s about 8 book length pages now.

              2. The “denial” wasn’t as the writers depicted. Look carefully, Jesus came three times to the disciples (in spirit, in their meditation — “Watching” is meditating) before “Peter” (Simeon Cleophas) “denies” him three times. The Greek word for denial is “aparnese” and means to repudiate, or deny utterly, or ignore. It isn’t merely simple denial to recognize. This is refusing to meditate. They were ASLEEP. “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak [sleepy]”. The were to watch and pray “for an hour”. In Hebrew Matthew, at the Transfiguration, the disciples were “alseep but not asleep, awake but not awake”, which is the way they described meditation in the first century. This was removed from the received Greek at 17:3. (Also removed was, “Elijah does indeed come, and will save all the world”, 17:11, speaking of John. Several other changes removed the elevated status of real-life character John the Baptist, so as not to compete with the mythical Jesus. You may know Luke has John in prison when Jesus is baptized. Lots of that sort of thing going on in the gospels. Eisenman is thorough on the removal of James from the canon.)

  1. A shy and very polite reader asked in an email why I quoted from Westcott and Hort’s Greek New Testament. Actually, the SBLGNT, the UBS, and W&H are identical in the Lukan prologue except for verse 3, in which there is a single-letter spelling difference. In that case, I explicitly quoted from the SBLGNT. This same reader asked why I quoted from the KJV. The King James is not a terrible translation, and in fact, it’s sometimes quite literal, which is useful in textual criticism. In those cases where the KJV translation was ambiguous or questionable, I used the NASB instead.

  2. I’m curious, have you also compared to the Pauline corpus as reconstructed for Marcion to see if the affinities you find are *not* present using his presumably less redacted versions?

    1. That’s probably my next step. Neil and I were chatting last night, and I mentioned to him that often when I found verbal affinities in the “undisputed” letters, the text at that point seemed rather un-Marcion-esque. Given Hoffmann’s claim that the rehabilitation of the disciples at the end of Luke is an orthodox interpolation, perhaps this is more fertile ground for study. I would presume that if the goal was to elevate the Twelve and tone down Paul, we’ll see the redactor’s hand in both places (the new stuff in Luke and various places in the Pauline corpus).

  3. Yep that’s cool.

    “I never would have predicted finding verbal affinity between Acts and Paul’s letters.”

    Unless the writer of Acts had Paul’s letters, which he surely did?

    1. Dettering sees the association that the “real’ Pauline letters and Acts were written basically as counterpoints to each other, so they would have been written at the same time. I haven’t finished “The Fabricated Paul”, but it does seem that he puts them as 2nd century writings.

  4. I am no expert on who wrote Luke and Acts, but I can tell you something Luke didn’t write: 22:19b-21. It is a Pauline interjection in an already Pauline gospel. (source: Bart Ehrman, “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture”) pp 180-190, thereabouts.

    1. Who is too say the fabricates did not act as editors for each others works. One writer or team produced one work, while another concentrated on another. They may have been co located and helped each other by chipping in, wherein unexpected places.

  5. Tim wrote: “The verbal affinity here may be purely coincidental; on the other hand, it could indicate the mark of the ‘ecclesiastical redactor’ (Perhaps Polycarp? See Trobisch’s The First Edition of the New Testament) who domesticated Paul’s letters, wrote the pastorals, edited Luke, and wrote or at least compiled the final version of Acts. Naturally, this explanation is simply conjecture.”

    Me: Another possible candidate I am interested in is Clement of Rome (as proposed by P.L. Couchoud). With that in mind I looked over 1 Clement for verbal affinities between it and the Lukan Prologue. I notice these possibilities:

    Verse 1:

    Lukan Prologue: “those things on which there is full conviction among us…”, using peplērophorēo

    1 Clement 42.3: “The apostles… having been fully convinced (plērophorēthentes) through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ…went forth…in the full conviction (plērophorias) of the Holy Spirit… ”


    1 Clement 54.1: “Who is filled (peplērophorēmenos) with love?”

    Verse 2:

    Lukan Prologue: “Even as they delivered (paredosan) them unto us…”

    1 Clement 7.2: “the glorious and venerable rule which has been delivered (paradoseos) to us”


    1 Clement 19.2: “the goal of peace that has been delivered (paradedomenon) to us…”

    Verses 2 and 3:

    The Lukan Prologue twice says “from the beginning”, in the first instance using archē with preposition apo, and then uses anōthen in the second.

    1 Clement uses archē for “beginning” but, like John 6:64 and 16:4, does so with the preposition ek (“delivered to us from the beginning” – 1 Clement 19.2). In 47.2 it uses the preposition en: “in the beginning of the gospel”.

    Verse 4:

    Lukan Prologue: “so that you may know the certainty…”, using epiginosko and asphaleian

    1 Clement, using other forms of the same words, opens with a commendation of the church of Corinth which includes praise of its “certain knowledge”: asphalē gnōsin ( 1 Clement 1.2)

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