Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ is one of the most influential novels in American history, largely because of its religious themes that offer a parallel story to supplement an understanding of the life of Christ. Published in 1880, Ben-Hur was hailed by such figures as Ulysses S Grant, William Jennings Bryan, Jefferson Davis, and James Garfield, with the latter finding it so insightful that he appointed the author, Lew Wallace, Minister to the Ottoman Empire.
Most of the public recognition for Ben-Hur comes from the recent 2016 adaption and the excellent 1959 adaptation with Charleton Heston that is widely considered one of the greatest films of all time. It shares the Academy Award record of eleven with Titanic and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. While these films capture the iconic chariot race that is the pinnacle of the story and are faithful to the Christian themes of redemption, they largely miss one of the central arguments of the novel.
Throughout the story, Wallace explores the concept of Jesus’ role as a heavenly Savior, rather than an earthly king, and the spiritual ramifications of the distinction. The protagonist, Judah Ben-Hur, initially expects that God’s promised Messiah will be a military warlord to lead the Jews to free themselves from Roman rule and then dominate the world. Only after a series hardships and misadventures that culminate in witnessing the crucifixion, does he realize that this is not what Jesus was sent to do.
Ben-Hur is contrasted with his childhood friend Messala, who returns from Rome and ridicules the overzealous and backwards spiritualism of the Jews. Ben-Hur defends his people’s faith in the face of the relativism of Roman intellectualism and the two former friends are irreconcilably divided. Messala champions cynicism and military glory while Ben-Hur believes that life should be devoted to God. Messala declares
“Who are the wise men of our day? Not they who exhaust their years quarrelling about dead things; about Baals, Joves, and Jehovahs; about philosophies and religions. Give me one great name, O Judah; I care not where you go to find it … Pluto take me if it belong not to a man who wrought his fame out of the material furnished him by the present!”
This interaction embitters Ben-Hur and he vows to go to Rome himself and train to be a soldier so that he can lead his people in rebellion to overthrow Rome.
Oblivious to the irony of his mantra, Ben-Hur is so marred by his interaction with the cruel Messala so as to believe that his pious traditions can only defeat Messala’s relativism through military force, thus adopting the very attitude he despises in Messala.
At the end of the book, after Ben-Hur has defeated Messala in the chariot-race and Messala is penniless, friendless, and crippled, Messala sends a message to him requesting a refund of the money he lost wagering on the race. This is Ben-Hur’s chance to redeem his former friend and to show mercy to a man who had repeatedly betrayed him and persecuted his family. Instead Ben-Hur harshly responds:
“Tell him [Messala] in my strength I rejoice in his beggary and dishonor; tell him I think the affliction of body which he has from my hand is the curse of our Lord God of Israel upon him more for than death for his crimes against the helpless.”
This brutal response is in line with the pragmatic consequentialism that Ben-Hur learned through his constant struggles. He believes that God’s justice will be severely dealt in this world to those who deserve it.
Even towards the end of the novel, he is still convinced that force and power are expressions of justice. Ben-Hur has two primary mentor characters in the story, the Magi Balthasar, who was in attendance at Christ’s birth, and the wheelchair-bound merchant Simonides, whose body was broken by Roman torture. Simonides and Ben-Hur predicted a king who would use his divine power to exert political influence over men. For them:
“The king implied a kingdom; he was to be a warrior glorious as David, a ruler wise and magnificent as Solomon; the kingdom was to be a power against which Rome was to dash itself to pieces. There would be colossal war, and the agonies of death and birth – then peace, meaning, of course, Judean dominion forever”
Balthasar offered a contrary view and claimed that the kingdom of God would be “On the earth, yet not of it – not for men, but for their souls – a dominion, nevertheless, of unimaginable glory.” Instead of leading with armies, this ruler would lead with love.
“The power there is in Love had not yet occurred to any man; much less had one come saying directly that for government and its objects – peace and order – Love is better and mightier than Force.”
This type of leader was unheard of for Ben-Hur and, while he trusts Balthasar’s wisdom and considers the value of such a king, he prepares the way for a political leader, one who will demonstrate the righteousness of his cause with blood. After defeating Messala and reclaiming his fortune, Ben-Hur begins covertly assembling an army of “Galileans.” He arms “legions” and trains them in the desert to be ready to follow the Messiah into battle.
There is also the side-plot of Ben-Hur falling in love with the beautiful Iras, the daughter of Balthasar who dreams of sitting as Ben-Hur’s queen. She betrays him when it becomes clear that Jesus is not the worldly power and ticket to political power they anticipated. In a scene reminiscent of Messala’s earlier ridicule of Jewish beliefs, Iras taunts Ben-Hur saying
“I saw your dreaming Caesar make his entry into Jerusalem. Instead of a Sesostris returning in triumph or a Caesar helmed and sworded – ha, ha, ha! – I saw a man with a woman’s face and hair, riding an ass’s colt, and in tears. The king! The Son of God! The Redeemer of the world! Ha, ha, ha! Has he broken Rome to pieces? Where has he seated his capital? And his palace – he raised the dead; and to such a one, what is it to raise a golden house?”
The expectation that Jesus would be a political and worldly leader echoes the story of the devil offering these things to Jesus. Matthew 4:1-11 is the narrative of Jesus fasting in the wilderness and being tempted by Satan. The devil offers Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them” if he will simply worship him. Under the Roman concept of morality, the one Messala and Iras believe and Ben-Hur adopts out of pragmatic necessity, such a compromise would be acceptable. It would be an unstoppable pursuit of glory and an expression of justice. By this relativistic logic, if Jesus’ cause was righteous he would prove it by defeating the immoral Romans and imposing his values on the world. Jesus rejects this earthly power, and remains the spiritual Messiah described by Balthasar.
Historically, many Jews were unable to accept this separation of political and spiritual power. In the novel, Wallace references the Jewish Revolt that happened thirty years after Christ’s death, when the discontented Jews rose up against Rome only to be slaughtered by the legions and have their temple destroyed. They again rebelled in 132 AD, following Simon Bar-Kokhba, a man they believed to be the Messiah. That rebellion resulted in their defeat and diaspora.
The latter part of the book chronicles the Passion narrative from Ben-Hur’s perspective as a loyal disciple outraged that Jesus is being murdered. After realizing that this is his last chance to save the Messiah he had waited so long for, he goes to rally his Galilean legions to free Jesus and begin the long-awaited rebellion. But his trust in military power fails as all his men, who were days before willing to die for Jesus, turn on him and are found among the crowds chanting for his death.
Watching Jesus’ death, Ben-Hur is finally forced to accept that the Messiah’s salvation is spiritual, not material. Only when he hears Jesus reassure the other criminal on the neighboring cross that “verily I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise!” does he confirm that Jesus rules over a heavenly realm.
This is the central lesson of the story: that Christian ethics are based in an authority higher than the material world we reside in. Ben-Hur inherits this belief system from his Jewish upbringing, but he is incapable of following it for most of the story. He is almost so totally consumed by his desire to overthrow Rome that he was willing to use their own philosophy to defeat them. In his sufferings, Ben-Hur grapples with the incongruities between earthly injustice and the universal truth of God’s justice. Ben-Hur is able to come to a final realization only through a direct witness of the power of Jesus Christ. Christians for over a century have found encouragement in this sweeping story, and its theological message of the spiritual authority of God’s power is as relevant today as it was when first written.