Charles Quarles’ Illustrated Life of Paul is an “attempt to introduce readers to this amazing man and his incredible story” (p 2). Clearly from this quote alone, it is plain that Quarles is not writing an objective, impartial and indifferent account of Paul; however, Quarles “[has] sought to wed deep love for the apostle Paul with deep love for the truth” (p ix). No doubt some will see this as an impossible task: one must surely either write dispassionate history or religious propaganda; there can be no middle ground. Well, Quarles is unfazed by this dichotomy. Illustrated Life of Paul does in fact forge a middle ground, following “solid evidence in reconstructing Paul’s life without becoming the detached and disinterested historian that was the ideal of modernism” (p ix).
Illustrated Life of Paul
One of the striking facts about Illustrated Life of Paul is that Quarles is not leaning on what other biographers have said; instead, he chiefly depends on primary sources, such as ancient writings, when reconstructing history. The Bible, particularly Acts, takes the central role of course, but Quarles also draws heavily from the Mishnah, Josephus, the Apocrypha, and also early church fathers. It is clear that Quarles has done his own homework, as references to other biographies are scarce. This is all the more surprising when considering that Illustrated Life of Paul is written with a broad readership in mind.
As mentioned above, Acts takes central place in Quarles’ reconstruction. This is natural since a) Quarles is a believer and b) Acts is by far our best historical source for Paul’s life. One inevitable drawback to a study such as this is that at times it feels little more than a summary of Acts! I’m not quite sure how this can be escaped; however Quarles does manage to incorporate extra-Biblical insights in these summaries, so there is still much to benefit from in that material. Particularly excellent was the background he provided on the cities that Paul visited. I was pleased to see that Quarles presumes the reliability of Acts, although this will immediately narrow the appeal of Illustrated Life of Paul to those who hold evangelical convictions.
When discussing debatable questions, Quarles is evenhanded. For example, it is often simply assumed that Paul was a member of the Sanhedrin despite a lack of Scriptural support either way. In contrast, Quarles does not decide on the issue, but gives a clear and fair sketch of arguments on either side. Yes, Paul cast a vote for Stephen’s death (Acts 26:10) and rose to prominence within Judaism (Gal 1:14), but it is odd if Paul failed to mention membership in the Sanhedrin when “bragging” about his prior life before Christ.
Lastly, I should mention the “illustrated” aspect of this book! Scattered throughout – probably one for every two pages – is a drawing, painting, map, or most often, a photograph. On the most part these are modern photographs from Wikimedia Commons. Images range from a map of one of Paul’s journeys, to a photograph of the ruined city gate at Pela. Most of these images are beneficial for information or at least informed imagination, though a few are a “too modern” or blurry for my tastes.
There is little to complain about in Illustrated Life of Paul. It is well written, informative and enjoyable. I’m sure it would benefit pastors, teachers, Bible College-level students and virtually any other Christian. If I were to teach a class on the book of Acts, I would most likely assign this as required reading. Unbelievers will no doubt find it “too Christian” or “too devotional” to be taken seriously. Though a Christian biography, in terms of quality of research, it would not be an accurate dismissal. I would highly recommend Illustrated Life of Paul to anyone interested in the ancient world, early Christianity, early missionaries, the book of Acts, and obviously, the life of Paul.