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Last Updated on March 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490

Judah Ben-Hur

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Judah Ben-Hur, the titular character, is descended from a Judean royal family. While a newly-appointed Roman prefect, Valerius Gratus, passes by Ben-Hur's house, a roof tile falls, and Ben-Hur's former friend Messala accuses him of trying to kill Gratus. His family is imprisoned, and Ben-Hur is condemned to become a galley slave. After three years in the galleys, he saves Roman Quintus Arrius from drowning during a battle, and Arrius adopts him as his son. After Arrius dies, Ben-Hur inherits his wealth. He returns to his homeland and reveals himself to his former servant. He races Messala on chariots and causes him to become severely crippled. Ben-Hur organizes a physical revolt against Rome, but he eventually converts to Christianity and spends his life and fortune helping the underground church. Ben-Hur's journey represents the path to salvation and prosperity through Christ. Though he suffers heavily throughout his life, Ben-Hur is ultimately freed from his hatred and desire for vengeance by Christ's teachings.


Messala is a Roman nobleman. He is Ben-Hur's childhood friend and later his nemesis. He accuses Ben-Hur of trying to assassinate Gratus and causes him to be sent to the galleys. After he is crippled in a chariot race, Messala sends a man to kill Ben-Hur, but Ben-Hur bribes the killer out of committing the murder. Messala is finally murdered by his wife, Iras, the daughter of Balthasar, one of the wise men who came to find Jesus.

Jesus Christ

Jesus is a carpenter from Nazareth who is worshiped as Christ, the son of God. The first part of the novel is an account of his birth story. He afterwards appears throughout the novel at various points. For instance, he gives water to the enslaved Ben-Hur on his way to the galley ship. He is baptized by John the Baptist at the Jordan River. He heals Ben-Hur's mother and sister of their leprosy. The story also follows Jesus' betrayal and crucifixion, which Ben-Hur witnesses.

Miriam and Tirzah

Miriam is Ben-Hur's mother and Tirzah is his younger sister. Together, they are imprisoned in the notorious Antonia Fortress. While locked away in their cell, they develop leprosy, but they are eventually cured by Jesus and reunited with Ben-Hur.


Simonides is a slave of Ben-Hur's father. He has been protecting the family fortune. Once he is convinced that Ben-Hur is who he claims to be, Simonides offers the fortune to Ben-Hur.


Esther is the daughter of Simonides. She and Ben-Hur eventually marry and have children together.


Malluch is the servant of Simonides. He and Ben-Hur become friends, and Malluch accompanies Ben-Hur and Esther to Rome at the end of the book.

Minor Biblical Characters

Other Biblical characters presented in the novel include Joseph, the father of Jesus, and Mary, his mother. The novel also presents the three wise men, Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar, as they search for and find the Christ child. Balthasar later reappears in the story when Jesus is a grown man.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 707

Judah Ben-Hur

Judah Ben-Hur, the son of a wealthy Jewish merchant. After accidentally injuring Valerius Gratus, the imperial governor of Judea, he is sentenced to life as a galley slave while his mother and sister are entombed in a prison tower. On his way to the sea, he is given water by a young boy, Jesus. He spends three years rowing in the galleys. When Quintus Arrius is given command of the Roman fleet, he is dismayed after he hears the story of the unjust treatment of Ben-Hur and his family. When Ben-Hur rescues Arrius during a sea battle, he is freed and made the son and heir of the rich Roman. After the death of Arrius, Ben-Hur uses his new wealth to search for his family and seek revenge against the treacherous Messala. While he works to accomplish these goals, his life becomes interwoven with the life of Jesus Christ.


Messala (muh-SAH-luh), a Roman raised in Jerusalem, Ben-Hur’s boyhood friend. After being educated in Rome, he returns to Jerusalem full of contempt for all things Jewish. When Ben-Hur challenges these attitudes, their friendship turns to hatred. After the tragic accident, he refuses to help Ben-Hur and his family, encouraging and even profiting from their destruction. Eventually Ben-Hur destroys him, both physically and financially, during a chariot race. Messala continues to plot, unsuccessfully, against Ben-Hur.


Simonides (sih-MAH-nih-deez), a servant of Ben-Hur’s father. After the family was destroyed, he salvaged what he could of their fortune, refusing to reveal its location even under the questioning of the Roman torturers. He prospered as a merchant in Antioch, saving the wealth he amassed for the family he had once served. When Ben-Hur returns, he gives him the money. Simonides believes that the King of the Jews will come as a mighty warrior who will restore the glory of Israel. He encourages Ben-Hur to form an army in the wilderness in preparation for the messiah who is soon to come.


Balthazar (bahl-THA-sehr), an Egyptian, one of the three magi who visited the Christ child in his manger. He has spent his life waiting for the child to fulfill his destiny. Balthazar is one of the few who realize that the kingdom the child represents is a spiritual, rather than a physical, one. He is unable to convey this message to his companions. His entire life revolves around the birth and death of Christ. When Christ dies on the cross, he also dies.


Esther, Simonides’ daughter, also a servant of Ben-Hur’s family. She is virtuous and wise. She loves Ben-Hur, but he is torn between her gentle nature and the seductive beauty of Iras. She eventually marries Ben-Hur.


Iras (I-ruhs), Balthazar’s daughter, who is fascinated by the power of Rome and the wealth and glamour that Messala represents. She is beautiful and uses her seductive power to betray Ben-Hur. She is contemptuous of the meek manner and simple dress of Christ.


Tirzah (TIHR-zuh), Ben-Hur’s sister. After the accident that destroys Ben-Hur’s family, the Romans take revenge by walling up Tirzah and her mother in a prison cell. After Pilate acquires control of the country, he demands an examination of the prisons. At this point, Tirzah and her mother are released. Unfortunately, they had contracted leprosy and are now imprisoned by their disease, forced to beg on the outskirts of towns and avoid all human contact. Eventually, they are miraculously cured, and the family of Hur is reunited.

Sheik Ilderim

Sheik Ilderim, the greatest ruler in all the desert east of Syria. He is called “the Generous” because of his good deeds. He concealed the wise men from the wrath of Herod. He hates the Romans, who wish to steal his land and strip him of his power and wealth. He owns the horses that Ben-Hur uses to defeat Messala in the chariot race. His influence helps Ben-Hur in many ways.

Quintus Arrius

Quintus Arrius (KWIHN-tuhs AY-rih-uhs), the Roman leader sent to defeat the pirates who have been attacking Roman ships in the Mediterranean. During the battle, Ben-Hur saves him; the two are the only survivors of the battle. In gratitude, he adopts Ben-Hur, who later inherits his wealth and power.