(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Lew Wallace’s novel sets the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jewish prince unjustly condemned to be a galley slave and robbed of his inheritance, against the birth, ministry, and crucifixion of Christ. Embittered by the betrayal of his Roman friend Messala and enraged by what he perceives as the arrogance of Rome, Ben-Hur slowly comes to the realization that the kingdom offered by the miracle worker and Messiah Jesus is spiritual, not political.

The novel begins with a meeting in the desert of the Three Wise Men. Gaspar, the Greek, has learned from study and his country’s philosophers that each human being has an immortal soul and there exists one God. Melchior, the “Hindoo,” is moved by compassionate love for the suffering. Balthasar, the Egyptian, has performed good works. The three’s spiritual journeys lead them to Bethlehem and the cave in which Jesus is born.

The story moves forward twenty-one years. Ben-Hur runs into his childhood friend Messala after the latter has spent five years in a Rome that is beginning to lose reverence for the gods and religious absolutes. Hurt and angered by Messala’s pragmatic cynicism, Ben-Hur returns to the family mansion, where his mother soothes him by speaking of Jewish history and achievements. However, the loving family life of the Hurs—mother, son, sister Tirzah, and Amrah the servant—is shattered when Ben-Hur, watching the Roman governor of Judea ride by, accidentally dislodges a roof tile that strikes the administrator and knocks him from his horse. Messala identifies Ben-Hur as the would-be assassin. Condemned to the galleys, he is taken to the coast by a detachment of Roman soldiers. In a little village called Nazareth, the exhausted prisoner is given water by the local carpenter’s son, whose loving and holy face Ben-Hur will never forget.

He is made an oarsman in the ship of Quintus Arrius, a Roman given the task of extirpating pirates from the eastern Mediterranean. Quintus notices the youth and comeliness of Ben-Hur and resolves to know more about him. He orders that the young Jew not be chained to his bench before the engagement with the pirates, thus enabling Ben-Hur to save the Roman’s...

(The entire section is 897 words.)