Book Review: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Ben-HurTwo young men sat in a garden in first century Judea. They had been close childhood friends, but now they realized they must come to a parting of the ways. Their culture, religion, education, and training pitted them against each other. One was a Roman, Messala; one was a Jew, Judah Ben-Hur.

But their parting signaled more than the loss of friendship. A procession of the Roman governor and his guard passed by Judah’s house one day. As Judah and his sister leaned over the parapet to watch, his hand accidentally loosened a roof tile, which fell and hit the official, knocking him off his horse. The guards stormed the house, and Judah was accused of attempted assassination by none other than Messala. Judah’s mother and sister were seized and taken away, the Hur home was confiscated by the Roman government, and Judah was made a galley slave in a Roman ship.

In Judah’s third year as a galley slave, Quintas Arrius took over the ship to combat pirates. Arrius noticed Judah and asked about him. He was stunned to learn that Judah was the son of someone he had known, a prince in Judea. When a sea battle wrecked the ship, Judah saved the life of Arrius. Arrius adopted Judah as his son, had him trained in Roman fighting, and left him all his wealth.

Judah had two aims in life: to find his mother and sister, and to exact revenge on Rome in general and Messala in particular. He found opportunity to face Messala in a chariot race.

In his travels, Judah heard of a man named Jesus who was the source of much controversy. Some thought Jesus was the promised Messiah, arrived to set up his kingdom. Most thought the kingdom would be an immediate physical one, unseating and defeating the Romans. A few thought the Messiah’s kingdom would be a spiritual one. Judah threw all his influence and training into getting an army ready for the day Jesus would announce himself as King. But Judah also pondered Jesus’s teaching and wonders who he really was.

The subtitle of Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace is A Tale of the Christ. Although Christ is physically in the plot a short amount of time, He is a subject of consideration for much of the book. The story actually begins with three wise men meeting in the desert, discussing their backgrounds and how they came to faith in the one true God and were led by a star. Then they journeyed together to find the newborn king. Some twenty years later, the lone surviving magi, Balthasar, came back to Judea to see the now adult King take His place. This was the first novel with Jesus as a major character, and though Wallace made up scenes, descriptions, and actions involving Christ, as an author he respectfully did not put words in Jesus’s mouth. The only words Christ speaks in the story come from the Bible.

This story was spurred by a conversation Wallace had on a train with noted atheist Robert Ingersoll. Though Wallace wasn’t particularly religious, he felt Ingersoll was wrong. Wallace felt ashamed that he did not know more. He decided to research Christianity, eventually came up with the idea of framing the story and teaching of Jesus in a novel, and became something of a believer himself in the process. His novel became an all-time best-seller.

Many are familiar with the 1959 film starring Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur. The book, of course, goes into much more detail, and there are a few differences in some plot details between the two. (One interesting tidbit – but don’t read if you don’t want too much of a spoiler! In the film, Messala cheated in the chariot race by having spikes on his wheels with which he attacked Ben-Hur’s chariot. In the book, however, it was Ben-Hur who clipped Messala’s wheel in a slight action unnoticed by the crowd, causing the latter’s chariot to wreck. Though Ben-Hur was out for revenge, this isn’t treated as cheating in the book – in preparing for the chariot race, Ben-Hur noted the need to be alert to the Romans’ tricks. In fact, earlier in full sight of the crowd, Messala used his whip to strike Ben-Hur’s horses, causing them to leap forward. So it seems like this kind of thing was part of the race and not penalized.)

One of my favorite passages in the book comes after Messala tried to upset Ben-Hur’s horses and throw them off course:

The four sprang forward affrighted. No hand had ever been laid upon them except in love; they had been nurtured ever so tenderly; and as they grew, their confidence in man became a lesson to men beautiful to see. What should such dainty natures do under such indignity but leap as from death? Forward they sprang as with one impulse, and forward leaped the car. Past question, every experience is serviceable to us. Where got Ben-Hur the large hand and mighty grip which helped him now so well? Where but from the oar with which so long he fought the sea? And what was this spring of the floor under his feet to the dizzy eccentric lurch with which in the old time the trembling ship yielded to the beat of staggering billows, drunk with their power? So he kept his place, and gave the four free rein, and called to them in soothing voice, trying merely to guide them round the dangerous turn; and before the fever of the people began to abate, he had back the mastery.

Ben-Hur’s time rowing as a galley slave, which he probably thought of a lost period of his life, gave him the strength and training to handle this.

I watched the film and read the book some years ago. I enjoyed reading it again, although I found it rather wordy and overly descriptive (naturally, since it was published in 1880), which I don’t remember thinking the first time. But I enjoyed it, though I wouldn’t take my theology from it, especially the frequent grouping of “love, faith, and good works” as a way to “win heaven.” Wallace did a lot of research and explained a lot of history, and he gives a realistic description of the Jewish and Roman cultures and what Jews in that day might have been expecting. There is an interesting article here about Lew Wallace’s life and career.

I mostly listened to this audiobook version but read parts in the Kindle version. The narrator sounded a little bored in places, but did a good job in others. I listened to samples of other narrators, but none of the others sounded any better. The sound quality is one of the worst I have ever received in a book by Audible – there are several places where it sounds like it was a recording of a cassette tape that had been pinched or bent in places.

I recently learned that Wallace’s granddaughter, Carol, read his book for the first time and enjoyed it, but thought it needed to be rewritten in less “stilted” language, so she did so. I’d be interested to read that some time.

A 2016 remake of the film changes the plot in many places (making Ben-Hur and Messala adopted brothers, for instance), so I am not interested in seeing it.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

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12 thoughts on “Book Review: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

  1. I’ve watched the old movie several times, but never read the book. I need to though, especially after discovering a couple of years ago that Lew Wallace was involved in the trial for the conspirators against Abraham Lincoln.

  2. I wouldn’t discount the new movie version, Barb. It has been years since I saw the original, but my family was very much moved by the new version, and I’ve now seen it three times. The fact that Ben-Hur and Mesalla are adopted brothers and not just friend actually heightens the tension between them. I confess that I haven’t read the original novel, so I can’t say for sure what changes were made in the new version, but for most of us, it brought tears to our eyes in several places. The way Ben-Hur changes (letting go of his revenge) after seeing Christ on the cross is a high moment in the film. A few disclaimers: the galley ship scenes are a bit violent, so be warned. Also, once or twice characters say “Oh my God,” which doesn’t at all seem consistent with orthodox Jews of that period; they would never have spoken God’s name in that way. Quibbles aside, I think the new version is definitely worth seeing. At the same, I’m going to rewatch the original Ben-Hur and may change my mind.

    • Thanks for sharing that, Adam. It does sound like it might be good, if I can set aside frustration over the changes. I just read through the synopsis on Wikipedia, and it looks like they changed a lot unnecessarily (at least in my opinion. :)). But the main point is Judah’s realization of who Jesus is and his transformation, so I am glad they emphasized that.

  3. There were some very touching passages in the book & it’s a great story but it was quite wordy as you mentioned. I’ve watched the original movie but Charlton Heston’s acting has always annoyed me & that spoilt it for me.

  4. I have loved the original Ben-Hur movie since I was a kid. And I did really enjoy the new remake of it also. The book has been on my radar to read but have never got around to it, I think the very fact of the style of writing from that time period does make me hesitate.

  5. Thanks for this great review! I’ve never actually read “Ben Hur”, but I read “The Robe” by Lloyd Douglas several times, and I do love historical fiction. So maybe I need to try this one also. Glad to be your neighbor over at #LMMLinkup this week!

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