Jonah Commentary – Phillip Cary Interview

jonah commentary phillip caryPhillip Cary is the author of the Jonah commentary in the Brazos Theological Commentary series. Dr. Cary (Ph.D. Yale University) is the Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University.

Dr. Cary loves learning things by reading old books, and that is essentially what he teaches. As far as he is concerned the best old book is the Bible, because it contains the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It always cheers him up to teach anything that has to do with the Gospel.

Dr. Cary has taught courses such as Western Civilization, Introduction to Philosophy, Faith and Philosophy, Ancient Philosophy, Medieval Philosophy, Modern Philosophy, and Continental Philosophy. His research interests include Augustine, Luther, History of Christian Thought, and Theological Interpretation of Scripture. Links to Dr. Cary’s other published work, besides the Jonah commentary, can be found below.

Dr. Cary has recently started blogging at First Thoughts.

7 Questions on Jonah in the Brazos Theological Commentary Series

Recently, Dr. Cary kindly answered my questions about his Jonah commentary. Readers will learn how this commentary came to be, what is distinct about it among Jonah commentaries, and how the project edified him personally.

1. What previous research and/or personal interests led you to this project and helped prepare you to write this commentary on Jonah?

I am a theologian who thinks theologians ought to do biblical exegesis, so I was attracted to this series, the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, in which theologians serving the church, not just Bible scholars serving the academy, do the exegesis.

I was also an English major in college, and I love doing literary study of a superbly-told story.

I was attracted to Jonah in particular because it’s about the relationship of Israel and the nations, which in the New Testament becomes the relation of Jews and Gentiles, which is a  topic of central theological concern to me.

2. Who is the intended audience for this commentary? Would it benefit pastors? professors? students? lay Christians in the local church?

It’s meant for anyone who likes to read and loves the Bible. I’ve heard back from all sorts of people, including pastors and professors, but also lots of plain, ordinary Christians, who say they’ve enjoyed it and learned a bit from it.

3. What is unique about this commentary? What contribution does it make to studies of Jonah?

I tried to be alive to what is funny, ironic, puzzling, and surprising about the book of Jonah, which is oddly not a usual goal in Biblical commentaries. I hope there are times when you read it and laugh.

4. What section or passage of this commentary was particularly memorable to research and write? Why?

There’s the puzzle in chapter 1 about why the sailors had to cast lots to find out who in the boat was responsible for the storm, even though we’re told that Jonah had already let them know he was running away from the LORD (verse 10). So what did they find out by casting lots? The temptation is to try to explain this puzzle away, as if it was some kind of mistake by the author or the text. But if you recognize that this is not a mistake but a cleverly-told story, then you can see what these pagan sailors did not know: It’s Jonah’s God, whose name is “the LORD,” that was hurling this storm at them.

The sailors worshiped many gods but did not know that the LORD, the God of Israel, made the sea and the dry land, and thus has power to hurl this storm at them, far from Jonah’s homeland. So it’s very significant that they end up worshiping the LORD, recognizing him as the God who made heaven and earth. We find that Jonah is an amazingly successful prophet, making known the greatness of the LORD, even as he is sinking down to the depths of the sea at the end of chapter 1.

Another discovery led me to realize that the strange gourd plant in chapter 4, which Jonah gets angry about because it protected him and then died, has deep significance for the life of Israel and for Christian readers. But that’s a longer story.

5. What personally edified you in writing this commentary, increasing your affections for Christ?

Working on this commentary energized my study of the Bible for years, and I find that intensive Bible study always does me good. The more I study, the more depths and beauty I find, and that helps my heart.

One beautiful thing that particularly helped me was seeing that God’s intensely loving involvement with Israel (in the person of the angry, disobedient, and wildly successful prophet Jonah) is inseparable from his love for the world in Christ. In technical terms, a properly Christological reading of the Bible needs to be grounded in a resolutely Israelogical reading.

6. Besides your commentary, what are your top recommended books (commentaries or otherwise) on Jonah?

I found Phyllis Trible’s analysis of Jonah in her Rhetorical Criticism helpful. But most helpful of all was Robert Alter’s little book, The Art of Biblical Narrative, which permanently changed how I read all biblical stories.

7. What is next for you? What project are you currently working on? How can people follow your work and ministry?

My new book, The Meaning of Protestant Theology: Luther, Augustine and the Gospel that Gives Us Christ, comes out in June 2019 with Baker Academic. The subtitle gives you the key idea. Next on the agenda is another book on Augustine (my fourth on that great figure), and after that, God willing, I’d like to write a book about Esau.

People who want to hear more from me could try my video and audio lectures with The Great Courses, including courses on Luther, on Augustine, and on the history of Christian theology. And if you want to know what I think about some important pastoral problems of our time, you could look at my little book, Good News for Anxious Christians (Brazos Press).

Own Phillip Cary’s Jonah commentary in the Brazos Theological Commentary series