Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is a novel by Lew Wallace published on November 12, 1880 by Harper & Brothers. Wallace's work is part of an important sub-genre of historical fiction set among the characters of the New Testament. The novel was a phenomenal best-seller; it soon surpassed Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) as the best-selling American novel and retained this distinction until the 1936 publication of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. In 1912, Sears Roebuck published one million copies to sell for 39 cents apiece: the largest single-year print edition in American history. The book was also the first work of fiction to be blessed by a Pope.
Ben-Hur has been very popular, often appearing on lists of great American literature, which has been a source of frustration for many literary critics over the years. Critics point to problems such as flat characters and dialogue, unlikely coincidences that drive the plot and tedious and lengthy descriptions of settings. But other critics say it is highly entertaining and engrossing with a well structured plot and exciting story.
The novel was quickly adapted into numerous stage productions, including one which recreated the climactic chariot race on stage using live horses, full size chariots, and a series of treadmills. With the subsequent development of the cinema, the novel was also adapted into motion pictures in 1907, 1925, 1959, and 2003.
Ben-Hur was inspired in part by Wallace's love of the story The Count of Monte Cristo (1846) by Alexandre Dumas, père, which was based on the true memoirs of a French shoemaker in the early 19th century who had been unjustly imprisoned, and who then spent the rest of his life seeking revenge. In his autobiography Wallace said that while he was writing Ben-Hur "at my rough pine-table, the Count of Monte Cristo in his dungeon of stone was not more lost to the world.
The plot revolves around two storylines: the story of Jesus and the story of Judah Ben-Hur. Wallace had an outline for the novel as early as 1873, but it was a chance meeting on a train with fellow Civil War Union veteran and agnostic lecturer, Robert G. Ingersoll, that he was challenged to think about his beliefs. Wallace noted that he knew little about Jesus and subsequently began to research the historical setting for the Messianic events. He wrote parts of the book in Indianapolis, and the remainder in the New Mexico Territory, while serving as territorial governor. His room in the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe is still described as the birthplace of Ben-Hur. Wallace stated in his memoirs that he wrote the climactic scenes of the Crucifixion in that room by lantern light, after returning from a dramatic encounter of his own with William Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid.
The central character is Judah, prince of the Hebrew house of Hur. Judah grows up in Jerusalem, during the turbulent years around the birth of Christ. His best friend is Messala, a Roman. As adults Judah and Messala become rivals, each hating the other, which leads to Judah's downfall and eventual triumph. Elements of the story include leprosy, naval battles among galleys, the Roman hippodrome, Roman adoption, Magus Balthasar, the Arab sheikh Ilderim.
The first part describes the Nativity events, with a special focus on the Magi from the east. In the opening scene, Balthasar, an Egyptian, is riding a camel. The camel stops at a certain spot in the desert, where he sets up a tent. Two other men arrive at the same spot within hours. One is Melchior, a Hindu, and the other is Gaspar, a Greek from Athens.
The three men each tell their stories. They realize they have been brought together by their common goal of seeking redemption from the world's problems. They are promised they would see God's Christ, the agent of redemption, after much prayer.
That night, as they prepare for the journey to come, a bright star shines over the region, and they take it as a sign that they are to leave. They follow the star, and head on through the desert towards the province of Judaea.
The scene changes to the Joppa Gate in Jerusalem. Here, Mary and Joseph are travelling through on their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem in connection with a Roman enrollment. They stop at the inn at the entrance to the city, where the Shaikh informs them that there is no vacancy in the lodge due to the influx of people associated with the enrollment.
Mary is now with child and undergoing her labour pains. Advised by the Sheik, they head to a cave on the hillside behind the inn, where mangers are kept for the animals. One particular cave has great historical significance, for King David himself had lived there at certain points of his life. In here Mary and Joseph, along with a few of their friends, stay, and Jesus is born.
In the pasturelands outside the city, a group of seven shepherds are keeping watch over their flocks. Angels from heaven announce the Christ's birth. The shepherds hurry towards the city. They are rebuked by one of the men supervising the khan, but nevertheless, inspired by the angel's message, they enter the caves on the hillside and worship Christ. They spread the news of the Christ's birth around, and many come to see him.
The Magi soon arrive in Jerusalem, and inquire for news of the Christ. Herod the Great is flabbergasted to hear of another king to challenge his rule, and asks the Sanhedrin to find information for him. The Sanhedrin brings out a prophecy written by Micah, telling of a ruler to come from Bethlehem Ephrathah, interpreting it to signify the Christ's birthplace. The Magi then head to Bethlehem, and following the star's direction, head right to the khan, and find the Christ they had sought for so long.
It is revealed later in the work that the Magi were told by the Holy Spirit not to return to Herod but to go to a certain Arab trader named Sheik Ilderim.
The book now turns away from the Messianic events temporarily, steering the reader for the first time to the title character, a prince of seventeen descended from the royal family of Judaea. Valerius Gratus was about to become the fourth Roman prefect of Judaea, and Messala, the son of a Roman tax-collector, had just returned from five years of education in the imperial capital.
Messala had been a childhood friend of Judah ben Hur, but now, after all the years of indoctrination from Roman officials, he had returned as a bitter relation. He mocked Judah for not giving up Judaism for the Roman spirit, and continually stated his belief that war and military activity had become the new fashion, almost as if it were a religion. Even romance seemed minute compared to this passion for conquest.
Judah is aghast to hear the mockery of his religion, and becomes Messala's enemy. He goes home sad, but picks up Messala's advice, and decides to go to Rome for military training, but use it against the Roman Empire. After his mother allows his journey, he immediately decides to set off.
The next day, Gratus is inaugurated, but Judah, by accident, pressed so hard on a tile on his roof that it fell down and injured the governor as he was passing by. Messala betrays him to arrest, and he is forced, without a trial or any other legal proceeding, to become a slave aboard a Roman warship. Judah's family is led away to life imprisonment in the Antonia Fortress. The palace is seized and becomes government property.
Judah vows vengeance at the Romans. He is then pulled aboard a caravan towards the sea when he meets Jesus along the way in Nazareth. He is offered a drink from him, before continuing on his way. He, too, is moved by his nature and keeps him in his mind.
Judah Ben Hur is aboard one of the vessels, having been condemned to a life rowing war-ships. Unlike many others, who often died soon into their job, he had survived three rough years, mostly because of his strong passion and his will to revolt against Rome.
Arrius asks the hortator to permit a private audience for the boy before him, and has his request granted. Ben-Hur appeared on deck and talks about his life. Arrius is now very interested in the life of the youth, and he eventually starts admiring him for his qualities and despising those that had punished him for his attempted assassination charge. The Romans were supposedly lovers of justice, but apparently it had not materialized.
The pirates come onto the scene and start attacking. Judah returns to his spot and starts rowing. The hortator, in kindness to him, allows him to remain free when everyone else is bound in chains, for he sees that he is a man of spirit. Therefore, Ben-Hur, in the midst of battle, seeing that he is being defeated, escapes, getting flooded by the waters. He reaches for a plank that is floating on the water, and when the dust clears, he is alone on the sea, while the warships have moved farther away.
Arrius surfaces besides him, and the two of them hold tight, sharing their feelings, until a Roman ship appears, defeating the pirates and picking them up along the way. When they return to the port at Misenum, they are happily and joyfully welcomed. Ben-Hur is then adopted by Arrius and becomes a faithful citizen of Rome.
Simonides' daughter, Esther, starts taking an interest in Ben-Hur's affairs. He tells his story, from the capture to that day, but Simonides demands more proof - in the world of that time imposition was common. Ben-Hur replies he has no proof, but asks one last question: whether any knew where his mother and sister were. The answer is in the negative, and he leaves the house with an apology.
Simonides then decides to put the supposed Ben-Hur to the test, hiring Malluch, one of his servants, to spy on him. Malluch meets Ben-Hur in the famous Grove of Daphne, an outdoor Greek temple, where he is finding solace. They head to the stadium together. There, Ben-Hur finds Messala, whom he now considers a traitor, racing in one of the chariots, preparing for the race to come in one week.
There comes an announcement from one of the servants of Sheik Ilderim, a prosperous Arab who owned a huge expanse of land to the east of Antioch. It said that a chariot driver was wanted. Ben-Hur, wanting nothing better than revenge on Messala, decides to drive the sheik's chariot and defeat Messala once and for all.
Meanwhile, Balthasar and his daughter were sitting at a fountain in the stadium. Messala gives his chariot a jolt that speeds him in their direction. Ben-Hur stops him, upon which Messala apologizes. Balthasar thanks Ben-Hur and presents him with a gift.
Ben-Hur heads to the Ilderim tent. Malluch follows him there, and along the way they talk about the Christ and Malluch, who has heard Balthasar's story, relates it. Suddenly, they realize that the man they rescued at the fountain was the same Balthasar as he that saw the Christ.
Malluch returns to Simonides upon their arrival. Back at Simonides' house, he, Esther, and Malluch all discuss together, and they conclude that Ben-Hur is indeed who he claims to be, and that he is on their side in the fight against Rome.
Messala is dining with some friends at the palace across the river from Simonides' house. While in conversation with them, Messala realizes that Ben-Hur has been adopted into a Roman home and has been restored to his honour, and now threatens to take revenge on him.
Meanwhile, Balthasar and Iras arrive at the Ilderim tent, and greetings are exchanged with Ben-Hur and the Sheik. They talk about the Christ, and how he must have now been ready to enter public ministry as he was now approaching the age of thirty. In another storyline, Ben-Hur appears to be taking an interest in the beautiful Iras.
Ben-Hur seems to be just the right person to propel the horses, for he takes them on such a journey that Sheik Ilderim is impressed. However, the Sheik reports that he has urgent news for him. He opens the intercepted letter, and Ben-Hur starts reading it. He gets angry when he finds a reference in the letter that appeared to indicate his family was dead in their cell at the Antonia Fortress. He then becomes surprised and aghast when he realizes Messala knew a lot about him and his whereabouts. It turned out that Messala was sending spies to the tent posing as people wanting to be hired as Ilderim's chariot-drivers.
The door opens, and Simonides, Malluch, and Esther enter in. At this point there is a brief note in the story that Ben-Hur is also attracted to Esther.
They converse for a while, and Simonides offers Ben-Hur 673 talents: 120 talents in cash, and 553 talents more in property. This was the accumulated fortune of his father's business. The humble Ben-Hur, however, accepts only the money, leaving the rest to the merchant to use at his own disposal.
Their next topic of discussion is the coming Christ. They refer to prophecies from the Tanakh, and begin debating about the nature of the promised Christ. Eventually, they come to an agreement that they will each do their part to fight for the Christ, whom they believe to be a political saviour from Roman authority.
It is now the day before the race. Ilderim prepared his horses and hauls them to the stadium. Ben-Hur instructs Malluch to learn as much as he can about the race and try to attract attention for it. Now, chariot races were big sporting events and almost everyone in the city would get into the spirit, declaring their support for one of the participants, thereby forming "campaigns" in support of the contestants. In light of this, Ben-Hur also appoints Malluch to organize a "campaign" for him.
Meanwhile, Messala strikes back, organizing a huge campaign and also revealing Ben-Hur's identity to the world. Furthermore, he wins the support of the gamblers, and the odds slant towards his campaign greatly. Malluch, however, challenges the Messala group and offers Messala himself a wager, which, if the Roman lost, he would enter into poverty.
The day of the games arrives, and the first events pass quickly. Finally, it is time for the chariot race. Ben-Hur's friends are all in the stands, watching intently. Now, there were originally six contestants in the race, but just as the race is starting one of them, Cleanthes the Athenian, crashes his chariot and falls to his death. After several laps, Messala and Ben-Hur became the clear frontrunners, and three remaining contestants were de facto in another race behind them for third place.
Near the end of the race, Ben-Hur deliberately scrapes his chariot wheel against Messala's in such a way that the Roman's broke. Messala's chariot then fell apart. Furthermore, Admetus, a Sidonian, came out fast and crashed into the wreck. Ben-Hur, however, was unharmed, and won the race practically uncontested, as the other two chariots were too far behind. Ben-Hur was crowned winner and showered with prizes, and was very glad at finally taking revenge, and earning his first strike against Rome.
After the race, he receives a letter from Iras asking him to go to the Roman palace of Idernee the next day. When Ben-Hur arrives there, he realizes that he has been tricked, probably by Messala, for he has been locked inside the palace and Iras is not there.
Shortly afterwards a certain Thord, a Saxon man who had trained Ben-Hur in the Roman lanista, arrives with a friend and admits he was paid by Messala to kill Ben-Hur once and for all. They duel, but before it is over Ben-Hur offers Thord four thousand sestercii to let him live. Then, the two of them abandon Thord's friend and leave. Thord claims to Messala that the man trapped inside the palace is Ben-Hur himself, and that he has killed him. In this way, Thord collects money from both Messala and Ben-Hur and returns to Rome to open a wine shop.
Now that Ben-Hur had supposedly "died", he fled into the desert with Ilderim and started planning his future, safe from his enemies.
Meanwhile, Pilate has ordered a review of the prison records to ensure that Roman justice is being maintained. The probe reveals that one cell of the prison has been omitted from Gratus' charts, and that Gratus was deliberately trying to conceal the existence of the cell.
Pilate's troops reopen the cell and find that there are two leprous women inside - Ben-Hur's mother and sister. They are released, and stop for a while at their old house, which is now the property of Rome and up for sale. Here, they find Ben-Hur sleeping by the house, and they offer thanks to God but weep that, as lepers, they are to be banished and can never see Ben-Hur again.
Amrah, the Egyptian maid that once served at Ben-Hur's house, discovers Ben-Hur and wakes him up, and they are reunited. Amrah reveals that she has stayed in the Hur house for all the years, unbarring one of the gates and sneaking out of it every now and then to buy from the market. She had also kept in touch with Simonides through these trips and had even discouraged many potential buyers of the house because they thought she was a ghost!
Amrah and Ben-Hur independently try to find information about their lost relatives. While Ben-Hur obtains an official Roman report about the release of two leprous women, Amrah opts for hearsay and finds Ben-Hur's mother and sister first. They urge Amrah to keep their new "residence" a secret. For this reason, Ben-Hur was not successful in finding his long-lost relatives.
Around this time a plan had just been approved to use funds from the corban treasury in the Jewish Temple to construct a new aqueduct to bring water to Jerusalem. This was seen as sacrilegious by the Jewish people, and they petition Pilate to veto the plan. Pilate, however, sends his soldiers in disguise to mingle with the crowd. At the appointed time they struck and massacred the protesters. However, Ben-Hur manages to strike against Rome again by killing a Roman guard in a duel, and becomes a hero in the eyes of a group of Galilean protesters.
At an emergency meeting in Bethany, Ben-Hur and his Galileans organize a resistance force, an army which would revolt against Rome when necessary. He applies to Simonides and Ilderim for help, and they establish a training base in Ilderim's territory, deep in the desert. After training for some time, Malluch sends him a letter announcing the appearance of a prophet who he believes to be the Christ, and Ben-Hur's troops are delighted.
Ben-Hur journeys to the fords of the Jordan, and on the way meets Balthasar and Iras again, travelling for the same purpose. Ben-Hur, however, still does not accept Balthasar's reasoning that the Christ was a Saviour rather than an earthly king, and sticks with his armies.
They reach the community of Bethabara, where a group has gathered to watch John the Baptist. All of a sudden, a man walks up to John, and asks to be baptized. Ben-Hur recognizes him as the same man that gave him water at the well in Nazareth many years earlier, and Balthasar worships and almost faints from the joy of once again seeing the Christ.
During the next three years, Jesus preached his gospel around Galilee, and Ben-Hur became one of his eager followers. He, however, starts to think Balthasar may be right after all, when he sees that he is behaving with humility, choosing fishermen and similar people considered "lowly" as apostles. Furthermore, he believes Jesus to be wasting valuable time by not proclaiming himself king immediately. Yet, he has seen Jesus perform miracles, and is convinced that the Christ really had come.
During this time Malluch, armed with the Hur fortune, bought the old house on the Via Dolorosa and renovated it, restoring it to a splendour that was even greater than before the incident with Gratus. He then invited Simonides and Balthasar, with their daughters, to live in the house with him, and they become regular occupants of the house, while Ben-Hur, ironically, seldom stays in the house, and even when he does, is treated like a guest.
Now, the day before Jesus was planning to enter Jerusalem and, finally, proclaim himself, Ben-Hur returns and gives them a full account of what has happened through the years he has followed Jesus. When he mentions the healing of ten lepers, Amrah realizes that Ben-Hur's mother and sister could be healed, and the next morning hurries to the lepers' cave to tell them the good news. They wait along a road, and amidst all the rejoicing and din during the Triumphal Entry, they ask Jesus to heal them, and their request is granted.
After they are cured, Ben-Hur, spotting them, embraces them, and Amrah likewise, as they finally are truly re-united.
Several days later, Iras talks with Ben-Hur, saying he has trusted in a false hope, for Jesus had not started the expected revolution. She says that it is all over between them, and departs, saying she loves Messala. Ben-Hur remembers the "invitation of Iras" that led to the affair with Thord, and accuses Iras of betraying him and spying on him for Messala's gain.
That night, Ben-Hur realizes how different Balthasar and his daughter are, and resolves to go back to Esther. While he is lost in thought, he sees a parade marching down the street, and falls in with it, utterly confused. He notices that Judas Iscariot is leading the parade, and many of the temple priests and Roman soldiers are all marching together. What was their objective of this rare collaboration between Romans and Jews?
The answer is not long in waiting; they went to an obscure olive grove, called Gethsemane, which confuses Ben-Hur even more, and he sees, ahead of him, Jesus walking out to meet them. The famous "Whom seek ye?" discourse occurs, in which, for the only time in the novel, Jesus is mentioned by name. Ben-Hur, aghast at the betrayal, is spotted by a priest who pulls on his garments to lead him to custody; however, he breaks away and flees naked. He reclaims some clothing that he had taken off previously, and wrapping himself in it, retires to the lodge.
When morning comes, Ben-Hur learns that the Jewish priests have tried Jesus before Pilate, and although he was originally ruled "not guilty", has nevertheless been sentenced to crucifixion due to the people's insistence. Ben-Hur is most surprised at how his legions have all deserted him in his time of need, and furthermore, how a Roman was more kind toward the Christ than his own people.
They head up to Calvary, and Ben-Hur resigns himself to what he believes is God's will, and watch the crucifixion of Jesus. The sky darkens, despite there not being an eclipse. Ben-Hur offers Jesus wine vinegar to return Jesus' favour for him, and Jesus utters his last cry. All that had assented to his crucifixion now run in fear, as an earthquake has arrived and the sky is still dark.
For Ben-Hur and his friends, however, this is a moment in which they committed their lives to Jesus, who they now realize is not the earthly king they had previously hoped for, but a heavenly king and a Saviour of mankind.
In the first scene Ben-Hur and Esther have married and had children, as they sit in their villa in Misenum. Iras drops around, and marvels at the children she might have had, announcing that she has killed Messala and finally discovered that Romans were 'brutes'. She leaves just as suddenly as she arrived.
In the second scene Ben-Hur is staying at Simonides' house in Antioch. Simonides' business has been successful, and now, as an old man, he has sold all his ships but one, and that one has returned from probably its final voyage, and was destined for the same fate; most of the fortunes of Simonides and Ben-Hur had been offered to the church of Antioch.
Ben-Hur's mother has died, but their family, being Christian, did not suffer much trauma or depression from the event. Shaikh Ilderim the Generous has passed his entire fortune and title on to his son, also named Ilderim, with the exception of the Orchard of Palms, which went to Ben-Hur. The Christians in Rome were suffering persecution under the hands of Emperor Nero, and Ben-Hur and his friends decide to do something to help.
Soon after, Ben-Hur, Esther, and Malluch set out on the last of Simonides' ships to Rome, and bring with them some of the money they had received from Shaikh Ilderim. They decide to build an underground church, which, the author says, has survived through the ages and is now known as the Catacomb of San Calixto in Rome.
In the 1950s a version was published in Israel that was supposed to be a Hebrew translation of Ben-Hur, but was in fact a substantially modified book. In this version, all references to Christ and early Christianity were removed and a new ending added, implying that Ben-Hur was about to join Zealots in their uprising against Roman rule. As such, the book enjoyed considerable popularity at the time, blending in with the then considerable sub-genre of original Hebrew historical novels with protagonists heroically facing various ancient enemies of the Jews, with obvious contemporary implications in newly-independent Israel.