Jul

22

2013

Andy Naselli|12:01 AM CT

Is 'Background Information' Ever Necessary to Understand the Bible?

My answer is a cautious yes: "background information" (which I prefer to call the historical context) is sometimes necessary for understanding the Bible accurately.

I say "cautious" because there are dangers if you answer that question either yes or no.

Dangers If You Answer Yes

  1. Some misuse "background information" in a way that twists the text to contradict what it transparently says. (E.g., see Bob Stein, Clint Arnold, and Doug Moo share concerns about mirror reading.)
  2. Others so focus on "background information" that they end up foregrounding what is in the background and backgrounding what is in the foreground (to borrow language from Doug Moo's critique of Tom Wright's new perspective on Paul). And as important as, say, extracanonical Jewish literature is for New Testament studies (see here and here), those studies often illustrate the law of diminishing returns.

It's important to remember John Piper's three cautions in The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 34-36:

  1. We might misunderstand the sources.
  2. We might assume agreement with a source when there is no agreement.
  3. We might misapply the meaning of a source.

Dangers If You Answer No

Some argue that "background information" is never necessary to understand the Bible: archaeology and other historical knowledge can confirm that you correctly understand the Bible and enrich your understanding, but it is not necessary. Consequently:

  1. Some discard "background information" as relatively unimportant and thus not worth studying carefully.
  2. Some even view it as a threat to the Bible's clarity and sufficiency.

Those who hold this view may fail to recognize how much basic "background information" they regularly employ to understand the Bible accurately.

Illustration: Wayne Grudem Answers No

Wayne Grudem illustrates someone who answers the question with a No, but he is not guilty of the two dangers I suggest above. He asserts ("The Perspicuity of Scripture," Themelios 34 [2009]: 297, bold added),

Historical background information can certainly enrich our understanding of individual passages of scripture, making it more precise and more vivid. But I am unwilling to affirm that background information can ever be properly used to nullify or overturn something the text actually says. In addition, I am reluctant to affirm that additional historical background information is ever necessary for getting a proper sense of a text.

On the other hand, information about the meanings of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words in the Bible does have to be obtained from the vast linguistic resources found in extra-biblical literature, resources that I consider God's good gift to the church for the purpose of enabling us to understand the Bible more accurately.

So what is the difference? I think (but I am not certain) that it is possible to maintain a distinction between (a) lexicographical resources in ancient literature and inscriptions that I think to be necessary for understanding the words of Scripture and (b) resources that provide historical background information (such as archaeological evidence and historical evidence from ancient texts) that I think to be helpful for improving our understanding but never necessary for gaining a correct understanding of the sense of a text. The difference (if it can be maintained) is the difference between what is needed for translation and what is useful for fuller understanding. For example, a translation will tell me that Ezra journeyed from Babylon to Jerusalem (see Ezra 7:9), and background information will tell me what the terrain was like and that it was a journey of about 900 miles (1,448 km). This does not change my understanding of the passage (it still means that Ezra traveled to Jerusalem), but it does give me a more vivid sense of the journey.

I stumble over that bold sentence and the distinction in the final paragraph.

I highly recommend Grudem's article, and I'm sympathetic with his first paragraph above. Nevertheless, I'd gently push back on that bold sentence. There are at least two reasons to be gentle:

1. I'm not sure what Wayne means by "a proper sense of a text." If he means "the general message of Scripture," then I agree with him (see the final section of this article). But I suspect that he means more than that.

2. Wayne tempers his language. He says, "I am reluctant to affirm." Later he adds, "I think (but I am not certain) that it is possible" to make this distinction ("if it can be maintained"):

  • "lexicographical resources" = "necessary"
  • "historical background information" = merely "helpful" (not necessary)

Here's my pushback: How can one logically grant language this degree of independence from the historical context? It doesn't seem possible because the authors use some words to refer to things outside the text (i.e., the words have extra-textual referents) that the first readers would have immediately grasped but that we might not. How can we determine the meaning of words apart from a historical setting?

Here are three examples (which we could easily multiply):

1. How can we determine what a δηνάριον (denarius) is without historical context? (Δηνάριον occurs 16x in the NT: Matt 18:28; 20:2, 9, 10, 13; 22:19; Mark 6:37; 12:15; 14:5; Luke 7:41; 10:35; 20:24; John 6:7; 12:5; Rev 6:6 [2x].)

2. It's important to understand what a lamb is to understand parts of the Bible, and those passages are part of deeply important typology. But what if someone today (such as an adult in a remote tribe or a child in America) has never heard of (let alone seen) a lamb? They would need some extra-biblical information in order to get "a proper sense of a text" (to use Grudem's words).

3. D. A. Carson writes this regarding Revelation 3:15 ("Approaching the Bible," in New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition [ed. D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, and G. J. Wenham; 4th ed.; Downers Grove: IVP, 1994], 15-16):

A fair bit of nonsense has been written about the exalted Christ's words to the Laodiceans: "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!" (Rev 3:15). Many have argued that this means God prefers people who are "spiritually cold" above those who are "spiritually lukewarm," even though his first preference is for those who are "spiritually hot." Ingenious explanations are then offered to defend the proposition that spiritual coldness is a superior state to spiritual lukewarmness.

All of this can comfortably be abandoned once responsible archaeology has made its contribution. Laodicea shared the Lycus valley with two other cities mentioned in the NT. Colosse was the only one that enjoyed fresh, cold, spring water; Hierapolis was known for its hot springs and became a place to which people would resort to enjoy these healing baths. By contrast, Laodicea put up with water that was neither cold and useful, nor hot and useful; it was lukewarm, loaded with chemicals, and with an international reputation for being nauseating. That brings us to Jesus' assessment of the Christians there: they were not useful in any sense, they were simply disgusting, so nauseating he would vomit them away. The interpretation would be clear enough to anyone living in the Lycus valley in the first century; it takes a bit of background information to make the point clear today.

So historical context may sometimes be necessary to understand the Bible accurately.

Does that Mean that the Bible Isn't Sufficiently Clear?

No. Here's how I address that in "Scripture: How the Bible is a Book Like No Other" (p. 66):

Not everything in the Bible is equally clear. . . . But the Bible's central message about God's saving work throughout history is unmistakably clear and easily understood. Its basic storyline—creation, fall, redemption, and consummation—is so simple that a young child can easily grasp it. God's communication in the Bible as a whole is accessible.

This assumes two debated premises. First, the Bible means what God and the human authors intended it to mean. Second, we can understand that meaning. But that doesn't mean that we can understand everything to the fullest possible degree. Case in point: Can a young child understand Genesis 1:1: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth"? Sure, that's not hard for a child to grasp. But that same child's understanding of Genesis 1:1 may continually increase as she learns more and more about the Bible and God's world. We can't know anything absolutely (exhaustively or omnisciently) like God, but we can know some things truly (substantially or for real).

If we can understand the Bible truly, then why don't all humans completely agree with each other on what the Bible teaches? The problem is not with the Bible. The problem is with finite and sinful humans. Were it not for the effects of the fall on our heads and hearts we would interpret the Bible the same way. But the point to stress here is that the Bible's central message is clear.

[Footnote] Cf. Wayne Grudem's seven sensible qualifications: "Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood but (1) not all at once, (2) not without effort, (3) not without ordinary means, (4) not without the reader's willingness to obey it, (5) not without the help of the Holy Spirit, (6) not without human misunderstanding, and (7) never completely." "The Perspicuity of Scripture," Themelios 34, no. 3 (2009): 288-309.

So yes, "background information" is sometimes necessary to understand the Bible. And this should provoke us to study God's Word (and his world) more diligently. Thank God for the abundant resources we have today to do that.

Update:

  1. Mike Bird reflects on the question.
  2. Don Carson and John Piper discuss the merits of studying hermeneutics and how much time teachers should spend investigating extrabiblical sources:

Andy Naselli (PhD in Theology, Bob Jones University; PhD in New Testament exegesis and theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is assistant professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Bethlehem College and Seminary, research manager for D. A. Carson, and administrator of Themelios. His family belongs to Bethlehem Baptist Church. You can follow him on Twitter.

  • http://bookloversjournal.blogspot.com John Dekker

    The obvious answer to the denarius question is that the Bible *itself* tells us that it was the ordinary wage for a day labourer (Matt. 20:2). Similarly, we know from the Bible that it had Caesar's image and name on it. What extra-biblical information do we need?

  • http://post-apocalyptictheology.blogspot.com.au/ Luke Isham

    What about a scale of decreasing importance based on the increasing 'gravity' of the surrounding text?

    So in other words a single word needs maximum background information. But a word in a sentence or a paragraph needs less and a word in a book or a canon needs very little background information because the surrounding text supplies what is needed to for understanding. However you wouldn't want to chuck out background information because God didn't choose a random period of history and a random place on earth for the Incarnation, God choose that background information on purpose!

  • Eric

    The Bible is a spiritual book written by the Holy Spirit to be understood through the Holy Spirit. Whether you have background information or do not have background information, it will not make a great deal of difference. Also the Rev. 3:15 example does not seem to be something that requires background information. It is clear in this very day in age that people drink cold drinks or hot drinks. Their faucets are set either to hot or to cold. If I am to offer the Lord a drink, I would not expect he wants a lukewarm drink. He would rather have it hot or cold. I think we need to be more desperate for the Lord, and He will explain His words to us.

  • Dan Olinger

    Andy,

    Would you distinguish between your "denarius" point and the "pim" question in 1Sam 13.21? I would view the latter as falling squarely under Grudem's discussion of lexicographical matters: the meaning of "pim" was clarified through Ugaritic studies. Are you suggesting that there are some historical data beyond the simple meaning of the word "denarius" that significantly clarify the biblical text? And if not, doesn't the "denarius" question fall under Grudem's second point?

    • http://andynaselli.com/theology/ Andy Naselli

      Hey, Dr. O,

      I'm not sure because I don't recall offhand the "pim" issue in 1 Sam 13:21. (My apologies if you taught me that in class at some point. I wasn't sleeping--just forgot!)

      Maybe denarius isn't the best illustration. (But my overall point doesn't stand or fall on the few illustrations I share.)

      • http://ochuk.wordpress.com Adam Omelianchuk

        Actually, the denarius example is a great one, because it shows the biblical writer acknowledges background information is necessary to understand the word he is using. The writer does not assume the reader will know how much a denarius represents, so it is explained in the text. You could say that the Bible itself acknowledges the necessity of background information to understand the meaning of its words.

  • James

    I think we often get really mixed up when we talk about issues involving the "authority" or "sufficiency" of Scripture. Usually when a Christian asks those questions about Scipture, they're not asking, "Is Scripture sufficient and authoritative on what's foundational and crucial to salvation in Christ?" They're usually really asking, "Can Scripture be contorted to fit my man-made system of moralism by which I can judge others?" Or even more succinctly, "How can I use Scripture to control other people?"

    At least, that's often been my experience in the church.

  • pentamom

    What seems to me an obvious example: read Psalm 23 to a native of a South Pacific Island before much outside contact, and ask yourself whether he can gain anything close to the understanding of that psalm as of a person who knows what a "shepherd" actually is could gain.

    How much does the parable of the vinedresser communicate to someone who has no idea about vineyards? What of warfare or weaponry metaphors to someone who has never experienced war?

    There are countless examples of cases like this where we think no "outside information" is needed simply because in our culture, we HAVE the outside information encoded into us, or because we think the stuff that gets taught to us in first grade Sunday school about "shepherds" and "building houses on the rock" doesn't count. That doesn't make it any less outside information.

  • David

    If you think historical background is absolutely necessary, then all lay-people need to have a historical library otherwise they must not understand the Bible correctly. I think this is a broad fallacy that follows a broad topic.
    You have to split this into categories. You cannot tackle it all at once. Yes, you can pull out Bible passages where the history behind the passage is necessary if you want to get what exactly is being discussed/pointed out/commanded/etc. The basic idea is generally understandable from the context, but not always, especially in many OT passages where a story is meant to bring about a conclusion while the intended message is not necessarily pointed out like an application section of a sermon. In these cases, if you want to know what the author really means, you need to know what the history is. Sometimes the history doesn't really add to the message except to fill in interesting details, such as translating what exactly happened between Ehud and Eglon. Was he on the toilet? Was he lounging? Not necessary info but interesting to know. Nothing is really changed by historical language and backgrounds in this case.
    You have to discuss this in terms of what people need. There is no Bible passage that is not important. But sometimes it's not vital that a person reading a passage with his family read the Bible along with his Bible Backgrounds commentary, lexicon, 24 volume commentary set, Seminary notes, etc. that so many people find indeed rightly to be crucial study tools. The fact is, there are probably more godly, Bible loving, truth honoring, God glorifying, deep theology knowing, Christians out there that don't know a lick of history, don't have a 6 year seminary degree, and don't have Logos Bible software than there are people in church offices with a plethora of resources at their finger tips. With this in mind, I say no, it's not necessary, but if you have access to it then you should consider yourself responsible for digging into it as much as you can because it will definitely help you develop a deeper understanding of Scripture and provide you with more tools for discussing Scripture and edifying each other, and a deeper grasp of truth among those who love it always brings more joy in Christ. So there is a great responsibility to study. But I don't think you can say historical background is necessary because the end result of people's lives and doctrine most of the time ends up the same with or without it. If you say it's necessary you must also say it is more worthy to stand the test before the Throne and will endure the fire of judgment as gold, while studies without historical backgrounds will burn away as chaff.

  • Jennifer

    I disagree with this article. Historical context and background information is always necessary to understand so you can put the words of the Bible in the correct context. What is happening in history at this point in time? Who is ruling? What empire is in control? Are Jews being persecuted during this time?

    While historical background is necessary, Scripture always interprets Scripture and the words of historians (Josephus, etc.) should never be taken OVER the authority of what is written in the Bible.

  • WR

    To say that we can understand the bible without investigating historical backgrounds is to content ourselves with interpretive blindness. Of course reading a text against the wrong historical background will lead to a wrong interpretation, just as much as allowing the historical background itself to become the interpretation is incorrect. However, it is simple arrogance to maintain that history is irrelevant to understanding scripture.

    I find it sadly ironic that certain scholars in the conservative guild cast aspersions on those who would say the NT authors used scripture without regard to their historical context and meaning, yet on the other hand claim they themselves can interpret and apply scripture without regard to its historical context and meaning.

    That scripture is a historically *conditioned* document does not threaten its status as a divinely *produced* document.

  • http://www.abramkj.com Abram K-J

    Grudem writes, "But I am unwilling to affirm that background information can ever be properly used to nullify or overturn something the text actually says."

    Which sounds obvious enough at first, until we ask... what does the text "actually" say? And how do we know when we are right about what it *actually* says? And how are we sure we aren't importing our own cultural assumptions into a situation that may have been operating with different cultural assumptions or settings?

    E.g., Jesus sat down to expound on Isaiah in Luke 4 in the synagogue. We might take this as an odd, more relaxed teaching posture, but all eyes were fixed on him not necessarily because of what he had just read (it might have been the expected lectionary that day, after all!), but because he was about to teach, sitting down. Which was the expected teaching posture. Our cultural assumptions can color our read of that text if we don't understand 1st century Jewish/Greco-Roman culture.

  • David Graham

    This is a good article. It seems to me that we could be even more bold about rejecting Grudem's distinction, given that the very act of translation is impossible without an understanding of the (historical, sociological, ideological, etc.)context of the language in question. If we had no access whatsoever to the community out of which a particular book arose, we would not be able to determine the meaning of the symbols within it. Thus, on a practical level, we all presuppose extra-biblical information. This does not rule out Spiritual providence but simply comes to terms with the fact that biblical translation committees proceed in their work as do the translators of any other ancient document.

  • Josiah

    We need background info just like we need to hear someone else's view of the text. It can be helpful or misleading depending on the accuracy of the information and our application of it. Scripture is sufficient, but I shouldn't ignore all commentaries for they can point out my error. Scripture is sufficient, but I shouldn't ignore additional historical information because it can point out my cultural assumptions.

    Background info is often a God-given shortcut/help to understanding what the Bible explains in other places. If you have never heard of a lamb, then you will be confused when you read a certain passage. But if you studied the Bible enough and read all other lamb-related passages, you could understand generally what a lamb is and what their purpose is in the text. Or, alternatively, I can give you a pamphlet on shepherding in the middle east (background info). Or, I can explain from the passage why the lamb is significant (my interpretation).

    Likewise, you can be well versed in all scripture, have numerous commentaries, and have access to historical data and still lack understanding in some areas.

  • Michael in Dublin

    I am disappointed that this article says nothing about the nature of language and how this relates to understanding the Scriptures. It is a feature of all language that it is meant to communicate - to be clear and not to confuse. If this were not the case then no communication would be possible. This is a feature of all languages - modern and classical and that includes the Bible languages.The foundation lies in the God who communicates through the use of language and who created us in his image.

    While we may use language to mislead and deceive (because of our fallen nature) or use it in a confusing way (because of ignorance, tiredness, haste or human limitations) all languages share this one feature that structure and meaning are inextricably interwoven. The meaning of any text of Scripture must be sought primarily in the passage and the book in which it occurs. The historical context may actually tell us very little - it may not be of any use at all - because this is not the main concern of the writer. Take the miracles of Jesus. We should study a miracle in the particular gospel in which it is recorded. A harmony disregards the fact that the Holy Spirit saw fit to inspire four gospels and not one. How each gospel writer narrates the same historical event is what matters (e.g. miracle of the five loaves and two fish). In John, this is one of seven miracles (signs) that need to be considered in the light of his final comment (John 20:31) as well as his structure. What may be far more useful is comparing and seeing how they differ and to notice the focus and emphasis of each writer. Anyone who reads closely or listens attentively picks this up.

    Consider two examples given by Andy Naselli:
    1. If we had no idea what a denarius was we can work out from the passage it was probably a coin. Some Bible passages give us the additional information about its relative value.
    2. Rev 3:15 We do not need to know about the local springs to get what the passage is all about. The congregation at Laodicea have a serious spiritual problem and clearly view their condition very differently from the way God does. The language itself does not support the speculative interpretations. Actually, "I stand at the door and knock," has been given a far more fanciful interpretation. A typical example is that used by the Alpha Course material. In both these examples the language itself gives us the key to understanding the text/passage. And despite critics who point to the many Bible translations, these actually convey the original surprisingly well. This is another feature of language – that the meaning can be faithfully conveyed when carefully translated into other languages.

    I also disagree with Wayne Grudem's suggestions that "lexicographical resources" are necessary for the understanding of words in Scripture. We all subconsciously work out the meaning of a surprising number of words in our mother tongues that we do not look up in a dictionary. We can become quite adept and accurate (I estimate up to 90% accuracy) by simply using the immediate and broader context in which the word is used. This has all to do with the pattern characteristic of languages. The same applies to the Bible. I am not opposed to the study of the Biblical languages - every minster should have good grounding. I am opposed to any attempt that would diminish the ability of any lay person - who has put their faith in Jesus Christ - when hearing or reading the Scriptures to grasp and understand not only the key teachings but considerably more.

    While John Knox (1561AD) may not have been able to explain why, he none the less recognized this characteristic of the Scriptures, which was one of the important insights the Reformation recovered from the early church:
    “The Scriptures are clear enough that the ordinary Christian, without the aid of an ecclesiastical (or scholarly) magisterium, can understand their main thrust. This is not to say that there are not difficult texts in Scripture or difficult doctrines. But the greater part and the main message is simple and clear, and the difficult texts are explained more clearly elsewhere in Scripture.”

  • Mark C

    Andy, thanks for your labors on this topic. Here are few thoughts and questions I have:

    1. Perhaps the authors, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, left out certain information that would help us get a complete picture of the historical setting because it's not essential, or even important. Since Scripture is breathed out by God, maybe we should hold out the possibility that Scripture in itself is entirely sufficient to understand Scripture. If God knew the letter to the church in Philippi would be used for a greater audience than the initial hearers, could we assume that all necessary information is already there?

    2. If we're incorporating historical background into our interpretation, don't we have a lot of room for error because we're always open to new findings, new diggings, new letters, and new theories?

    3. In the least (whatever position you hold) preachers should be very careful what they're conveying to the church when they spend time during the sermon explaining the historical setting with extra-biblical material (even if they think it's very helpful). We should be careful not to undermine the joyful and fruitful Bible reading and meditating of the saint who has no time or resources to study up on 1st century Samaritan culture.

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  • Matt

    What is the place of the Church being called "a pillar and buttress of the truth"? Can a Church always have the correct interpretation of Scripture?

  • LA

    Michael in Dublin, thank you for your comment! If background information is necessary to understand Scripture, the Spirit appears to have left out from His blessings of knowledge and nourishment through the Word many common saints in our time, and most saints throughout the history of the Church. Let the Scriptures speak to the Church as the Author and Word has so enabled them.

  • http://baptistsearch.blogspot.com/ Robert Vaughn

    Andy, thanks for this discussion. It is an important one that we should be having. Far too many of us do not answer either a "cautious yes" or a "cautious no". But I think the extreme where we are likely to do the most damage is thinking that folks cannot understand the Bible without a massive historical library. Oh, no one would say that, but it is the logical direction where the principle some advocate must lead.

    I feel like your No. 2 example can take us back toward understanding that the Bible gives us far more information than we might initially think, so that perhaps we do not "need some extra-biblical information in order to get 'a proper sense of a text." You are correct that it is important to understand what a lamb is to understand parts of the Bible. But must we experientially know what a lamb is, or could we possibly understand what a lamb is from reading the Bible? From the Bible we can learn that it was a domestic animal used in ritual sacrifice, that it has wool and can be sheared, and so forth, and so on. This is not to say that someone who is a shepherd might catch details that you and I would miss. On the other hand, I've never seen an animal sacrificed but I can grasp the idea and its meaning for us. And so it goes.

    We don't have to throw historical learning to the wind, but it seems to me that God hasn't left us languishing without learning if all we have is the Bible.

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  • Gordon

    WOW! This guy went to Bob Jones? Hmmm...makes me reconsider. Great Article. I believe that background information is always important in studying and interpreting the scriptures correctly. Without it you get the kinds of silliness that usually come from the pulpit where I attend church. So I don't ever want to push down the importance of that. The problem is that the background information sometimes needs to be interpreted correctly as well. Many an exegete has taken background information and misread it into the text causing the point of the text to be redefined. That is the main problem. When we seek to get to what the author meant and what the immediate recipients would have understood as they read we would have been closer to the proper interpretation.

  • http://textsincontext.wordpress.com Michael Snow

    One example of where background is an eye opener. http://textsincontext.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/romans-13-in-context/

  • http://www.richardblight.blogspot.com Richard Blight

    Hi Andy, I have been considering this question in the context of thinking about Genesis 1-3. I have been reading John Walton's book (The Lost World of Genesis 1) and recently heard him speak on this topic. I think his work can be very helpful in understanding what Genesis is saying - particularly in helping us relate it to the questions of modern science and so on.

    My point is this: I believe we can 'understand' the text of Genesis 1 sufficiently to understand the essence of what God is saying to us in this passage (ie. without 'background studies'). The essential teaching is clear in the text (of course we need a reliable text and translation) - I mean things like the fact that the one true God made everything including humanity which he made in his image to rule over the earth. It is important to remember that we also have the rest of the Bible as an authoritative interpreter of the Scriptures. We can trust that God makes his word sufficiently clear that we can understand the essence if we have the Bible and nothing else.

    Of course the background studies can be helpful in understanding more significance of the text (eg. the polemical significance when compared to Babylonian and Egyptian creation stories; the significance of the 'cosmic temple' in creation stories etc.). I would hesitate to say they can help us to understand the text in more 'depth', but perhaps in more 'breadth'.

    I believe this will help us to maintain the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture while recognising the value of 'background studies'.

    A relevant book on the topic is Mark Thompson's 'A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture', NSBT 21, Apollos / IVP, 2006.

  • Nelson Morales

    Good points Andy. I am teaching NT exegesis this semester and I am doing the same points.

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  • http://andynaselli.com/ Andy Naselli

    Update: Mike Bird reflects on the question.

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  • http://re2podcast.com/ Michael Davis