Last Updated on December 16, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 911
Ben-Hur takes place at the beginning of the first century and tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince from Jerusalem. The book, which became known as one of the most influential Christian books of the nineteenth century, is split into eight different parts.
The first part retells the birth of Jesus Christ and introduces the three Magi who sought him out.
Part Two introduces Judah Ben-Hur as his childhood friend, Messala, returns from being educated in Rome. Upon his return to Jerusalem, Messala makes fun of Judah and his religion, and the two are no longer friends. Judah then decides to go to Rome for military training. He wants to use the skills he learns to fight the Roman Empire. Before he leaves, he watches a parade from his rooftop. However, when a roof tile falls and hits the governor, Messala blames Judah, and he is accused of attempted murder. Judah’s family is imprisoned, and he becomes enslaved by the Romans. On his way to work on a Roman warship, he meets Jesus, a carpenter who offers him a drink of water and strengthens his will to survive so he can have vengeance on the Romans.
Judah is sent to Italy, where the Greeks have been looting Roman ships. The Romans are sent to the Aegean Sea to attack the Greeks, and Judah is chained on one of the warships. The commander of the ship, Quintus Arrius, discovers that Judah is a son of Hur and demands that his chains be unlocked. The ship is damaged in battle, and as it sinks, Judah saves Arrius’s life. When they return to land, Arrius adopts Judah, and Judah becomes a free Roman citizen.
Judah trains as a wrestler in Rome. He becomes the heir of Arrius and learns that the slave Simonides, who lives in the same city, was the heir of Judah's birth father’s possessions and is now very wealthy. Judah visits him and explains who he is, but Judah is unable to provide proof of his identity. Simonides sends his servant Malluch to spy on Judah, and the two become friends. They go to the stadium together, where they see Messala preparing for a tournament in chariot racing. Judah learns that Sheik Ilderim is looking for a chariot driver, and Judah offers to drive in hopes of defeating Messala in front of the Roman Empire. When Messala’s chariot almost hits one of the wise men and his daughter, Iras, Judah saves them. Messala threatens revenge on Judah while Judah becomes interested in Iras.
Judah learns that his mother and sister were imprisoned after he intercepts a letter written by Messala Judah is also chosen as the charioteer for Ilderim. Simonides offers Judah the fortune he built from Judah’s father’s possessions, but he only takes the original amount while they both agree to fight for Christ. The day of the big race arrives, and Judah scrapes the wheel of his chariot against Messala’s. Massala’s chariot falls apart, and he is run over by the other horses, making Judah the winner. Massala not only loses the race, but also loses his wealth and suffers a broken body.
Judah receives a letter from Iras requesting that he meet her. He quickly learns that he was tricked, and that Thord, an assasin, was sent by Messala to kill Judah. Judah offers him money to let him live, which he accepts. Thord returns to Messala saying that he killed Judah, and Judah escapes to the desert.
Judah travels to Jerusalum in search of his mother and sister. Injustices in the prison are revealed, and a concealed cell is reopened. In it are Judah’s mother and sister, both suffering from leprosy. They are released and find Judah sleeping on the steps of their old home. They are overjoyed to see him, but decide not to wake him and instead sadly move on. As lepers, they are banished from the city. Meanwhile, the Romans want to build a new aqueduct, and a riot erupts during which Judah kills a roman guard and is hailed as a hero in the eyes of the protestors.
Judah organizes the protestors in the hopes of fighting against Rome, and he travels to Jordan in search of the prophet. In Jordan, he recognizes the carpenter's son that gave him water years before, and realizes that he is being worshiped as Christ.
Judah follows Jesus around the land as he preaches his gospel. Judah hopes that Jesus will lead the army and become a righteous king on Earth. Instead, he watches Jesus pick poorer people as his apostles and witnesses his miracles, eventually coming to believe that Christ really has arrived. Jesus is able to heal Judah’s mother and sister, and the three reunite. Judah watches as Jesus’s followers desert him, and he is crucified. He is appalled at their behavior and is determined to commit his life to Jesus, having realized that Jesus's destiny is not on Earth but rather in heaven, where he will offer salvation to Christians. As the story ends, Judah marries Esther, Simonides’ daughter, and has children. He gives most of his fortune to the church of Antioch, and he sails to Rome to form an underground church to help the Roman Christians that are suffering under the Emperor.