(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.)

Ben-Hur Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In the Roman year 747, three travelers—an Athenian, a Hindu, and an Egyptian—meet in the desert, where they have been led by a new bright star shining in the sky. After telling their stories to one another, they journey on, seeking the newborn child who is King of the Jews. In Jerusalem, their inquiries arouse the curiosity of King Herod, who orders that they be brought before him. Herod then asks them to let him know if they find the child, for he, too, wishes to adore the infant whose birth has been foretold.

Arriving at last in Bethlehem, the three men find the newborn child in a stable. Having been warned in a dream of Herod’s evil intentions, however, they do not return to tell the king of the child’s whereabouts.

At that time, there lived in Jerusalem three members of an old and eminent Jewish family named Hur. The father, who had been dead for some time, had distinguished himself in service to the Roman Empire and had, consequently, received many honors. The son, Ben-Hur, is handsome, and the daughter, Tirzah, is likewise beautiful. Their mother is a fervent nationalist who has implanted in their minds a strong sense of pride in their race and national culture.

When Ben-Hur was still a young man, his friend Messala returned from his studies in Rome. Messala had become arrogant, spiteful, and cruel. Ben-Hur left Messala’s home after their meeting, and was hurt, for he realized that Messala had so changed that their friendship must end.

A few days later, while watching a procession below him in the streets, Ben-Hur is implicated when a piece of tile, accidentally dislodged, falls on the Roman procurator. The Roman believes that the accident was an attempt on his life. Led by Messala, who has pointed out his former friend to the soldiers, the Romans arrest the Hur family and confiscate their property.

Ben-Hur is sent to be a galley slave. While he is being led away in chains, a young man takes pity on him and gives him a drink. One day, while he is rowing at his usual place in the galley, Ben-Hur attracts the attention of Quintus Arrius, a Roman official. Later, during a sea battle, Ben-Hur saves the life of Quintus, who adopts the young Jew as his son. Educated as a Roman citizen, Ben-Hur inherits his foster father’s wealth when Quintus dies.

Ben-Hur goes to Antioch, where he learns that his father’s old servant, Simonides, is now a prosperous merchant. In effect, the wealth of Simonides is really the property of the Hur family, for he has been acting as agent for his dead master. Simonides assures himself that Ben-Hur is really the son of his old master and begs that he be allowed to serve the son as well. Ben-Hur is attracted to Simonides’s daughter, Esther.

In company with a servant of Simonides, Ben-Hur goes to see a famous well on the outskirts of Antioch. There an aged Egyptian is watering his camel, on which sits the most beautiful woman Ben-Hur has ever seen. While he looks, a chariot comes charging through the people near the well. Ben-Hur seizes...

(The entire section is 1249 words.)