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Heaven and Hell in a Nutshell

This post is free for anyone who wants to look.  Every week on the blog I post five times, dealing with all sorts of issues connected with the New Testament and early Christianity.  Interested?  Why not join?  It doesn’t cost much, you get tons for your money, and every nickel you pay goes to deserving charities.

 

I’m excited about my next book, being published on March 31, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife.   It’s already getting good reviews in the trade journals, the publications that announce which books are soon to come out and have experts review them in advance, so that book sellers, book stores, libraries, and so on know whether they want to buy them, and for book sellers and stores, in what quantities.  So that’s all good.

A while back I decided to try to encapsulate the essence of the book in a short essay, a kind of 2000 word summary of what it’s all about and why it matters.   I will give it here, over the course of two posts.  Here’s the first half.

 

***********************************************************

The fear of death has been among us for as long as we have had human records, from history’s oldest surviving tale, the Epic of Gilgamesh, to the now final season of the Good Place, soon to enter its own eternal rest.   The views of these two cultural artefacts are wildly different, but they share a constant.  The eponymous hero of the Mesopotamian epic writhes in agony at the prospect of spending eternity groveling in dust being eaten by worms; Eleanor Shellstrop desperately works to avoid the afterlife she deserves, in the Bad Place and its eternal torments.

Today few people may share Gilgamesh’s actual concern of being conscious forever in the dirt.  Plenty, however, tremble with morbid fear before eternal nothingness, entering the void with no hope of return.  Yet others cannot stand the uncertainties of the unknown, unsure of what will happen, pleasant, painful, or oblivious to both.  But the majority Americans continue to anticipate some version or other of the alternatives portrayed in The Good Place.  72% of Americans continue to believe in a literal heaven and 58% in a literal hell.    Even for those who think most people will avoid the torture chambers of the underworld, some will go there, and how can anyone be sure they will make the cut?   No wonder there is such fear.

Most of those who hold such views, of course, have received them from the Christian tradition – whether through personal allegiance or osmosis.   You die and your soul goes one place or another, based on your faith, your morality, or both.   And nearly everyone assumes these views are Christian because they are set forth clearly and forcefully in the Bible.

As it turns out, that’s not true.  The idea that a person dies and goes to heaven for eternal reward or hell for everlasting punishment is never taught in the Old Testament. Even more surprising, it is not what Jesus himself preached.  Or his earliest followers.

Then where did it come from?

Start at the beginning.  The Old Testament does not speak with just one voice on any topic, the afterlife included.  It comprises thirty-nine writings produced over many centuries by numerous authors with wide-ranging views on just about everything.  Even so, the vast bulk of the Old Testament has no real concept of any kind of life after death. Life is available now, before death.  When it is over, it is over.  After death is only death, for everyone, equally.  There is no punishment or reward, just a kind of non-existence.

Many of the Israelite authors hated the thought and lamented it: the joys, pleasures, and experiences of life are all here and now.  Afterward there is no physical pleasure and no social life – no family, friends, communities.  Even worse there is no more contact with God.  He forgets those who have died and they can’t even worship him any longer.

Sometimes poetic authors of the Hebrew Bible use the mysterious word “Sheol,” to speak of death.  We don’t know where the word comes from or even what it means exactly.  In some passages Sheol seems to be a shadowy netherworld where everyone gathers together with nothing to do, bored out of their minds for all eternity.   But in most places it appears to refer simply to the grave, the final resting place for everyone, the Hebrew equivalent of Gilgamesh’s dirt and worms.

But is that kind of postmortem existence fair?  If someone is a good person and lives for God, shouldn’t they get something good out of it in the end?

It turns out that ancient Greeks had the same problem.   Our oldest Greek literature comes in  Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.   Here too there is no real “life” after death.  The soul does continue to exist without the body, but it is just a shadow of its former self, with no strength, wit, or capacity for pleasure.   For Homer, though, souls are not simply abandoned in the grave.   They are gathered together in the underworld, in a place called Hades.  Everyone goes there, for the same mind-numbingly dull fate, with only a handful of exceptions.

At some point in the Greek tradition after Homer, thinkers began to raise the question of justice.  Surely differences now will be manifest then.  Isn’t there some kind of inbuilt system of rewards and punishments?  Don’t the gods care about how a person lives, about basic morality, religious practices, or celebrated virtues such as honor, bravery, and strength?   Surely some people deserve better than others.  It can’t be right that I’ll be treated like that schmuck next door.

More than anyone in the Western tradition, it was Plato who popularized an alternative.  Several of his dialogues contain self-designated “myths,” actual descriptions of the afterlife.  One of them narrates the most famous description of a Near Death Experience from antiquity.  A soldier named Er, killed on the battlefield, is restored to life and describes, then, the realms of the dead he has just observed.

His description is meant to serve an ethical purpose: the realities of death reveal the proper approach to life.  Most people, the story suggests, live for pleasure, concerned almost exclusively with enjoying bodily life in this world, pursuing pleasure and power.  In doing so, they neglect their souls.  But since the soul is what ultimately matters, neglecting it now will lead to horrible punishment in the life to come.

A few people, on the other hand, live for their souls, not their bodies, pursuing moral and philosophically reasoned lives, virtue, justice, and the relentless pursuit of truth.  These will be rewarded with glorious afterlives.  Unlike the others, they will not resent the loss of their physical existence; quite the contrary, they have spent their lives trying to distance themselves from the body and its addictive pleasures.  Their souls will therefore be rewarded in the life to come.

 

I will pick up here in my next post.

 


Heaven and Hell in a Nutshell: Getting into the Kernel
Why Are Their Differences in the Gospels? Does it Affect Their Inspiration? Guest Post by Mike Licona

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    PopeHat  January 25, 2020

    Recently a tour guide in an Etruscan museum in Tuscany related to me that at the time of the first Christians, pagans were essentially ancestor worshipers who, in order to get to the nicer afterlife, had to sacrifice to and honor the ancestors who were in control of the gates to the afterlife. The tour guide at this museum said that the Christian alternative was essentially a cheaper way to get to the better afterlife, an alternative the poor and the slaves could afford; these people understood God as God the Ancestor rather than God All Mighty. I hope the book provides a good understanding of the afterlife as understood by Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Hebrew, et al. Also, it seems likely that Greek philosophers and the every-day Greek probably had different thoughts on what the afterlife might be.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 26, 2020

      Yeah, I’m afraid that’s not right. I’ll be talking about pagan views of the afterlife in my forthcoming book. I won’t be talking much about Egyptians (since I dont’ believe their views affected Judaism and Xty much), but lots on Greek, Roman, Hebrew Bible, early Jewish, and Christian (and some Mesopotamian)

      • Avatar
        PopeHat  January 26, 2020

        Thanks, I look forward to reading it. Didn’t some Romans adopt and worship the Egyptian gods because the Egyptian gods offered a deeper emotional bond to the worshipper? In my casual understanding of Roman gods, I understand Roman gods as offering a transactional rather than emotional relationship. The Roman gods weren’t seen as perfect beings with an aspirational message, were they? I think that they are usually shown to grant wishes, foretell the future or place curses but not appeal to man’s higher sensibilities; in the pre-Christian west it was agnostic philosophy that taught how to live a better life. In short, the roles of the Roman gods played to Romans seem quite different to those the Christian God and Jesus play for modern Christians.

        BTW, I was astounded to learn recently that the names of both the roman Jupiter and greek Zeus Phater are derived from the Proto-Indo-European Dyáuṣ Pitṛ́. They weren’t very original were they?

        Thanks!

        • Bart
          Bart  January 27, 2020

          1. There was very limited borrowing from Egypt — though the mystery cults of Isis and Serapis are an obvious exception. 2. I don’t really know!

  2. Avatar
    Mar  January 30, 2020

    I never believed in The Devil as a literal being. But lately I’ve been doing research on near death experiences, now I’m really starting to wonder. People have had so many terrifying experiences. I’m wondering what you make of them? It’s always the people who admit to living selfish, materialistic lives.
    Thank you for your time 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  January 31, 2020

      Yes, about three years ago I got really interested in them too. So I read about 20 books, on all sides. Now that I’ve seen the evidence, I think they can quite easily be explained on physiological grounds.

  3. Avatar
    Klas  March 14, 2020

    If the historical Jesus did not “invent” eternal torment in hell, why did he tell the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, where the rich man was tormented?

    All his parables derived from a reality the listeners around him understood, they understood “sheep”, “fatted calf” but how could they understand the rich man feeling tormented by fire if they had never heard of the possibility that someone could be tormented after death?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2020

      In my book I’ll be arguing he didn’t tell the parable; it was put on his lips by later story tellers or Luke himself (just as many of his sayings in John’s Gospel are not things he really said.)

    • Avatar
      Mellon  April 10, 2020

      If you read the parable with a critical mind, there are things in there that don’t make sense.

      1. Why is Lazarus named, but the rich man isn’t?
      2. Why did the rich man ask for a drop of water on his tongue, and not, you, know, a swimming pool of it?
      3. Even more confusing: Why didn’t he scream for help *immediately* to get him out of there. Nobody in their right mind would fall into a furnace and ask for a drop of water, instead of screaming in agony for someone to get him out.
      4. Why was Abraham even able see him? That would be like us, watching someone in the other room, which has a huge glass window, watching someone else get tortured by being burnt alive. The Black Mirror episode “Black Museum” deals with that concept if you have seen it. What man of goodness would be able to stand watching that without at least trying to help?
      5. Why is the story essentially a warped version of the Greek Hades myth? It has the same beat by beat points: 2 sections, one where the good people go, and one where the bad people go. And a “chasm” that separates them (the river Styx)
      6. And the most confusing thing of all. Why did Jesus not mention anything about believing in him to be saved? The rich man is specifically told by Abraham that he is there because he had all the good things in life, and Lazarus had the bad things, so now Lazarus is comforted and the rich man is tormented for it.

      The agenda in whoever wrote that was clearly to tell the Pharisees that they were going to Hades for being extremely greedy and only caring about wealth and riches. I would have to agree with Bart on this one: It’s most likely added by someone down the line, possibly the writer himself.

  4. Avatar
    JesseH  April 5, 2020

    Dear Dr.Ehrman,

    I have many questions, sorry for that !

    1. Do you discuss the Rephaim (shadows) in your book?
    2. And the view of the afterlife by the Pharisees ? According to Josephus they believed in heaven and hell, and an Immortal soul. Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites, but does not argue with their belief system. He even says “do as they say, not as they do.”
    3. Why do you think there is so little information on the afterlife in the Old Testament ? Since even children ask this question, why no answer in the OT ? When people asked the Hebrew priests would they just answer: “I don’t know ?”
    4. Could it be that the Old Testament is a history book, and the religious books of the Hebrews were lost somehow ?
    (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-canonical_books_referenced_in_the_Bible)

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2020

      1. No. 2. They appear to have believed in the future resurrection of the body. Josephus is describing them in terms that will make them attractive to Romans 3. Because ancient Hebrews didn’t believe in an afterlife. 4. I would say they aer highly religious books. If you’re interested you may want to look at my book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction.

  5. Avatar
    Martin2020  April 7, 2020

    In “The coming judgement of Paul” you confirm the interpretation of Paul as someone who describes a future reckoning for individuals. What about a slightly more situational reading of Paul, where he outlines existential consequences based on personal choice? Paul indicates that those who remain with Jewish Christianity 1 follow the Torah law in an uncritical and pathological way. He thinks those who move on, or change, to the Jesus of Jewish Christianity 2 can live in an interactive and reflectively engaged way with the text. In version 2, by applying discretion, there is more flexible meaning so that the law becomes a force for forgiving others and for gracious living. Jesus didnt necessarily destroy ‘sin’. He offered a new alternative that revives the law as a kind of accessible reasoning tool for everyone in the community of faith – instead of a specialised, virtuoso dogma confined to experts. The key difference that can perhaps be discerned in Romans is that individuals in that redefined community have opportunity to connect in everyday to the transcendental God of Israel – and so to everlasting life as a present kind of sensibility. ‘Judgement’ isn’t necessarily postmortem. Paul’s platonic edge is potentially intended to modify the faith system of Israel internally – not in the traditional ‘antinomian’ sense.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2020

      It’s certainly possible, but my sense is that this line of moral and psychological reasoning fits well in a 20th and 21st century context, and not so well in ancient moral discourse.

  6. Avatar
    Osuaggiefan  April 7, 2020

    So thrilled to be in the blog! Semi conservative church of Christer and long time admirer of your work here 😊 you mention 2 Esdras ch 7, what Greek word is used in that chapter that English translators render as hell? Is it Gehenna? Tartarus?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2020

      Remind me the verse. The text is in Latin, not Greek, and ch. 7 is 139 verses long; I’d rather not read the whole thing to find out!

      • Avatar
        Osuaggiefan  April 8, 2020

        My bad. Knowing that the manuscript is in Latin partially negates the question but here’s verse 36 of 2 Esdras 7

        36 The pit of torment, the fires of hell, will appear, and opposite them the Paradise of joy and rest.

        I was just trying to see if ANY source outside of Jesus himself ever used Gehenna. Btw the book, to coin a phrase, “rocks the party that rocks the piñata” 😁😁😁👍👍👍 I know you get that a lot 😊. Myriad of more questions… I know I know one per day 😊

        • Bart
          Bart  April 10, 2020

          The verse in Latin is: [36] et apparebit lacus tormenti et contra illum erit locus requietionis, et clibanus gehennae ostendetur et contra eam iucunditatis paradisus. “clibanus gehennae” means “the furnace of gehenna” Here, yes, it does appear to be the place of torment, in fire, in contrast to “Paradise”

          • Avatar
            Mellon  April 10, 2020

            May I ask what manuscript you guys are referring to?

            In the Septuagint, 2nd Esdras 7 only has 28 verses, and it’s some kind of genealogy of a bunch of Kings and their sons.
            In the Latin Vulgate, there is no 1 Esdras, and 2nd Esdras is actually just “Esdras”. and “Esdras 7” matches the 2nd Esdras 7 in the Septuaging word for word (A genealogy of Kings and their sons)

            Both only go up to verse 28, and nowhere in the entire chapter is mention of paradise or gehenna, or hell.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 12, 2020

            We are referring to 4 Ezra.

          • Avatar
            Mellon  April 12, 2020

            Hello Bart. I apologize. I am still unable to find that passage. 4 Ezra in the Latin Vulgate renders something about Samaritan opposition to the construction of the temple. Nothing about Gehenna or Paradise.
            I went to look it up in the Clemetine Vugate, and other than some minor differences in grammar and punctuation, it seems to be about the same thing: Opposition to construction of the temple.

            I’m curious to read it, in either Latin or Greek, because the concept of paradise and hades being beside each other is identical to the Greek myth of Hades (you have the Elysiun Fields on the good side, separated by the river Styx, and then Hades on the bad side). Now my confusion is how did the idea of Gehenna get confused with Hades. If I search Gehenna in the Vulgate, there are only 2 passages in Joshua that appear, and the other passages are worded differently, such as in 2 Chron 28:3 “ipse est qui adolevit incensum in valle Benennon” (the valley of Benennon). But Joshua is also referring to the valley when he says “Gehennum”, not the afterlife place.

            Soooo… A quick peek at the Septuagint for those passages: Hmm, Joshua 15:8 has “φάραγγα Ονομ” (Valley Onom) and 2 Chron 28:3 has “ἐν Γαιβενενομ” (In GaiBenenon, presumably a transliteration from the Hebrew “Gar-Hinnom”. Damn, that’s weird.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 13, 2020

            4 Ezra is in Latin. You can find it here: http://www.textexcavation.com/documents/ezraapoc.htm Just scroll down to ch. 7, v. 38.

          • Avatar
            Mellon  April 13, 2020

            Ok thank you Bart.

            4 Ezra. I am not a scholar nor have I followed anything that wasn’t specifically in the Septuagint or Greek NT, since I can speak Greek and am comfortable reading the Koine (not the same as modern Greek, but the words are close enough usually to understand).

            If this book is not part of the official Canon in either the Hebrew, Greek, or Latin Manuscripts (at least the Latin Vulgate or the Clementine), then may I ask why it’s important at all?

            I read the passage, and I notice a couple of things: It I’m reading it correctly, it says “And appears the lake of torment, and it’s against the place of rest (presumably physically beside it), and the furnace of Gehenna extends against that blissful paradise”

            1. When was Gehenna associated with a lake of torment? That is exclusively imagery from Revelation, which to me, says that whoever wrote that book was influenced by the passages in Revelation.

            2. You could make the case that this passage is symbolic. It could easily be talking about someone who will be attacked, in conflict with another group beside their kingdom, and hence, his peace and paradise will be turned into a furnace of torment. Is there an English translation? I’ll look for it on my own. I’m basing my Latin on my knowledge of Spanish, so kind of crippled to try to figure out the entire chapter without some help

          • Bart
            Bart  April 14, 2020

            I can answer only one question at a time, so with respect to 4 Ezra: it was a very important apocalyptic work that appears to have been widely read, and is deeply reflective of Jewish thought from around the time of the beginning of Christianity.

          • Avatar
            Mellon  April 14, 2020

            Thank you Bart. I know you are inundated with questions. I appreciate you taking the time to answer mine.

  7. Avatar
    chadbeast  April 14, 2020

    I’m a little late to the dance on this one, but I have just started reading (ok, ok, listening to) Heaven and Hell. I’m only an hour in and already blown away, I’ve just ordered a hard copy from my local Indy shop (which happens to be Quail Ridge). I’ve got a shelf of Ehrman books and several of the old Great Courses, and they are always rewarding, but this concept is one I’ve been waiting many years for.

    When I first learned years ago that Heaven and Hell were absent from the oldest Jewish and Christian views and texts (that Sheol was simply a neutral ghost world, a basement of sorts where not much happened), it was a revelation. That the idea of a cosmic battle between good and evil was a Zoroastrian concept, was another. That voting rights, which aren’t actually provided for explicitly in the US Constitution as Heaven and Hell, widely believed to be foundational and textual in Christianity, isn’t, is fascinating and as always, the story of what we believe and why is enlightening, all the more for it being so obscure and poorly known.

    That, too, is an area of great interest, why, when we know this information, is it so poorly disseminated? Why when we know professional wrestling is a work (a performance), do we insist that it is a shoot (an unscripted contest)? Having once been a bit of a fundamentalist myself, there were always cracks in the armor, but I intentionally put them aside until I couldn’t anymore.

    In a modern world where people still kill and torture to impose fantastical, faith based beliefs (just as people used to stab and assault pro wrestlers, being fully invested in the performance), why do we still continue insisting in the literal and unalterable truth of some texts, but not others? I ask myself as much as I ask anyone else, as I once did this, too. What is the psychology and sociology at work here?

    Cheers and congrats on this incredible book, I’ve been waiting for this one for many years.

    • Avatar
      Mellon  April 14, 2020

      I’m not Bart, and I am eagerly awaiting his answer. But I’ll give you my take: Human beings are capable of reasoning, but that’s probably literally 10% of our mind. The other 90% is where everything happens instinctively.
      1. We don’t think about getting hungry, we just do. AND we can’t shut it off at the brain level, unless we do it the natural way: Eat something and let the stomach signal to the brain we are full, or use hard drugs that shut down appetite.
      2. We don’t think about having sex, we just see the other person and is we think they are sexy, BAM! our bodies want to have sex. You too, can’t shut that down unless you give it sex, or take drugs to switch it off.

      In the same way, we have instinctive needs to believe we are not alone, and that someone is watching out for us. So I mean, the past is riddled with deities, and now that the deities are getting disproved left and right, a lot of people are replacing the “gods” with a virtual framework of modern gods (AKA “the DC or Marvel heroes”), or outright hoping that there are “gods” in the emptyness of space (Aliens/Extraterrestrials).

      It is impossible for a human being to be objective. We have too much instinct that is fooled easily without any input from the rational brain (which appears to be on a complete separate circuit and will not influence the instinctive emotions unless we jam it in there like a jackhammer.

      This is why we can shut off our brains and watch Thor and Ironman beat up Thanos for 4hr straight, or watch The Rock and HHH go at it for 2hr. We know it’s all fake, but the instinctive need is satisfied with it.

  8. Avatar
    Firefighter54  May 3, 2020

    Just wondering if you believe that there are evil forces at work in the world such as demons?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 4, 2020

      I think there is plenty of evil in the world, but I do not believe in superhuman spiritual forces of any kind, only material entities (such as volcanoes, hurricanes, and humans)

  9. Avatar
    Jeff.Rose  May 25, 2020

    What about when Jesus said that evil people would be cast into utter darkness where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Is that hell?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2020

      Good question! But no, not in my judgment. Jesus doesn’t say their souls are taken off to another place to be tortured forever. They are upset because they are not given entrance to the kingdom. And in other passages Jesus says what then happens to them: they are destroyed.

    • Avatar
      Mellon  May 26, 2020

      For reference, the Greek passage would be translated like this:

      “Tie that man’s feet and hands, and toss him to the darkness outside, where there is weeping and grinding of teeth”.

      The context behind it, appears to be the idea of The Kingdom of God being inside the city of Jerusalem, and Gehenna being the valley literally right outside the gates to the city.

      So throwing out people to the darkness outside is tossing them out of the city (the Kingdom of God) to the valley of the garbage (Gehenna).

      The crying is due to the fact that they are not allowed in, and the grinding of teeth is in fury that they are not allowed in. It looks like this was a common idiom of the day.

  10. Avatar
    SHameed01  July 5, 2020

    What are your thoughts on the Greek word “aionios”? Christians use that as proof for eternal damnation. Now Christian Universalists argue that this word does not imply eternal punishment but age lasting punishment. In response, the eternal damnation crowd responds by saying that can’t be true since “aionios” is used in Matthew 25:46 and if the punishment is not eternal neither is life in heaven. Your thoughts on all this?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2020

      Yes, the punishment in Matthew 25:46 is eternal. But it is not used to describe “torment.” It is set in contrast to eternal “life.” The opposite of life is not torture but death. Jesus is saying that someone who suffers that penalty will never, ever have it reversed. It is an *eternal* punishment, death forever.

      • Avatar
        SHameed01  July 20, 2020

        What are thoughts on the following as stated by Christian Universalist Gary Amirault?

        “Just because “aionios” is used to describe life and punishment, does not mean they have to be of the same length and quality any more than a “small” house has to be the same size as a “small” ring because the same adjective is used to describe both. Often adjectives take on some of the value of the word they describe.

        Therefore, “kolasin aionion” (mistranslated “everlasting punishment”) does not have to be the same length as “zoen aionion” (mistranslated “eternal life”). Aionion should not have been translated “everlasting” because aion and its adjective are clearly time words that have beginnings and endings.

        And “punishment” for the Greek “kolasin” is too strong a word. Kolasin means “to prune a tree to make it more fruitful.” There is nothing fruitful about eternal damnation in burning flames. If Jesus wanted to imply vindictive punishment, the author of Matthew could have chosen the Greek word “timoria,” but he didn’t – he used a much softer word.”

        (https://www.tentmaker.org/articles/Matthew-25-46-Commentary-Amirault.html)

        • Bart
          Bart  July 21, 2020

          It’s a complicated issue with the Greek, and not clear cut.

  11. Avatar
    SHameed01  July 6, 2020

    What are your thoughts on debate that occur among Christians till this day regarding whether salvation can be lost versus not? As a New Testament scholar which side do you think the Bible is on or does the Bible contradict itself on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 7, 2020

      I’d say virtually the entire Bible says that you can lose your salvation.

  12. Avatar
    SHameed01  July 20, 2020

    Hello Professor,

    There is a following quote I wanted to share with you and would love to know your comments on it. Here is the following quote in question (see below).

    “In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa, or Nisibis) were Universalist, one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked.” “The Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge” by Schaff-Herzog, 1908, volume 12, page 96

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