Lewis Wallace. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. 1880; Amazon.com, 30 March 2011. E-book.
With the recent films Hail, Caesar and Ben-Hur (the third at my count), I felt I ought to read the novel that inspired these movies, Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur. I have seen the 1959 film starring Charlton Heston, and I do recall it pretty well, considering I saw it around 1960. The film is fairly faithful to the book, though of necessity much is cut out or collapsed. Wallace tells a very good story.
Like the 1959 film, the story begins with the three wise men or magi visiting the baby Jesus. Unlike the film, one of the wise men, an Egyptian named Balthasar, becomes an important character in the novel. Indeed, Balthasar is the theologian of the story whose influence ultimately steers the protagonist Judah Ben-Hur both to Jesus and to an understanding of the Kingdom of God.
(In fairness to the film, the occasional voice-overs of the 1959 production were given to the same actor who played Balthasar.)
When we think of the movie, we think of the chariot race. Indeed, about a third of the novel focuses on the chariot race, too. In other words, it is not like The Lord of the Rings’ Battle of Helm’s Deep which takes about half an hour of film time but only a couple of pages in the book. No, there is not a blow-by-blow description of the race for 180 pages, but it does focus on the many things that lead up to the race: Judah’s training as a Roman military officer, the betrayal by Messala, Judah’s desire for revenge, Judah’s connection with the Arab sheik Ilderim, the choosing of horses, and the horse training.
As most readers know, Wallace was a general in the American Civil War and knew horses. This part of the story is told well, even for those of us who are not that familiar with horses or who have seen the movie and know how the race turns out. I thought of Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds which describe a fox hunt in such a way that even readers who know little of foxes or horse or hounds get a sense of why people enjoyed the sport.
The most surprising thing about Ben-Hur was that romance is a major element in the novel, though a minor one in the film. That’s right, Judah Ben-Hur was attracted to two lovely damsels: Iras, the seductive daughter of Balthasar, and Esther, the shy but intelligent daughter of the rich Jewish merchant and family retainer Simonides. Which one will he choose?
Although we may think of the story arc involving horse races and slave ships, one reason that Ben-Hur has continued to be enjoyed is that it portrays many important relationships. Most readers can relate to at least some of them. There is, of course, the betrayal of Judah Ben-Hur by his childhood friend Messala for political gain.
Throughout the book, Judah worries about his mother and sister. Their fate, until they meet Jesus, is worse than death. Yes, they have leprosy, but beyond that their imprisonment is most cruel and unusual.
As is well-known, Ben-Hur is sentenced to be a galley slave where he manages to survive for three years and rescue the Roman admiral Arrius who adopts him as a son. Ben-Hur then reconnects with his father’s steward Simonides, who is now the richest merchant in Syrian Antioch. Through Simonides he meets both Balthasar and Ilderim, along with Iras and Esther. Ilderim sets him up with the horses and chariots that will defeat Messala. But more than that, Ilderim helps him organize and army of Jews and Arabs that will rebel against Rome when the time is right. Simonides sympathizes with this plan, but Balthasar demurs.
Balthasar has told both Judah and Simonides about his visit to Bethlehem some three decades earlier to see the infant who was to become the King of the Jews. He understands with the two of them that the Jewish Messiah will rule the world in the name of the one true God.
Simonides and Ben-Hur see the Messiah as a political figure. He will conquer the Romans and set up a righteous government ruled by the Jews according to Jewish Law. Indeed, the army that Ben-Hur organizes, he organizes for the Messiah. When the Messiah, who must be a man by now, gives him the word, his armies will rise up.
Balthasar, of course, is a gentile Egyptian. Because of his studies as well as his encounter with the baby Jesus, he does believe in the one true God. However, being a gentile, he does not see the Messiah in the nationalistic terms that his Jewish friends do. He explains that if God is the God of all mankind and that if the Messiah is going to rule the world in righteousness, His kingdom will be different. He must first make people righteous. He has to somehow deal with the sinfulness of all mankind.
The novel is perhaps a little more realistic than the film. In the film, Judah’s mother and sister get healed of their leprosy at the cross. This was done, I believe, for the economy of time in the film. In the novel, they are healed as they call out to Jesus when He passes by. In other words, more like the way Jesus healed a number of people in the Gospels.
I think it is not much of a spoiler to say that Judah Ben-Hur will end up with the nice Jewish girl, but we also learn that Balthasar’s daughter reverts to polytheism. At one point when she takes Ben-Hur for a boat ride, most readers could not help thinking of another famous Egyptian beauty: Cleopatra on her barge. So Iras never accepts her father’s stories about the Christ or his belief in a single Creator God. As has been said, God has no grandchildren.
Wallace makes a few clever and subtle Biblical connections. The Bible in Acts 11:26 tells us that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians at Antioch. While we cannot say that Esther of Antioch coined the term, the first time we hear the term used, Esther speaks it.
Judah Ben-Hur, we are told, was a Jewish prince—not unlike the rich young ruler who questioned Jesus. Ben-Hur’s family line goes back at least to the time of the resettlement of Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. We find that Wallace named the family Ben-Hur because Nehemiah 3:9 describes Rephaiah the Son of Hur (i.e., ben Hur in Hebrew) as “the ruler of the half part of Jerusalem.” Jewish nobility indeed!
We see one interesting note of comparison with the film. In the chariot race, Ben-Hur does not wear a helmet the way that the rest of the racers do. I just figured this was typical Hollywood. The star does not wear a hat or helmet so we can see who is doing the daring deed (this goes from Rambo to Branagh’s Henry V). However, the book actually tells us that Ben-Hur did not wear a helmet in the race. They were serving the cameraman and the original source at the same time!
The story ends with a mention of the Catacombs of Callixtus (or Calixto). Those were rediscovered around 1850 (one reliable source says 1849, another 1854). Anyway, they had been in the news just prior to the Civil War, so that Wallace’s audience would have known something about them. Callixtus’s story parallels that of Ben-Hur in some ways: a slave who escaped by jumping off a ship, sentenced to slave labor in a mine where he got the attention of a mistress of the Emperor at the time (c. A.D. 200), and was eventually freed and became a priest and then the Bishop of Rome.