Last Reviewed on March 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 309
Ben-Hur was incredibly popular when it was first published in 1880, and it continued to be a bestseller, ranking second only to the Bible, well into the 1930s. The author explains that its success came in part because it mixed a religious story—the story of Jesus Christ—with the elements of an adventure tale. In addition, the story appealed to religious people during the Victorian age, who may have sworn off novels but who still wanted the trappings of a novel along with a dose of religion.
Wallace's novel is not just a fantasy about the Holy Land at the time of Jesus's birth; it is researched in great detail, and the details that Wallace includes are historically accurate. For example, Joseph and Mary do not find a manger in which to give birth to Jesus. Instead, Jesus is born in a cave, which is more probable. Wallace's place names are historically and geographically accurate, and he puts a great detail of time into the veracity of the locations he describes.
Wallace's literary technique is to interweave the story of the fictional Judah Ben-Hur with elements of the Bible. Ben-Hur witnesses the crucifixion, and Jesus gives him water when he is being held prisoner by the Romans. Ben-Hur is also a witness to the Roman way of life and its celebration of military power. He eventually disavows Roman ethics and the Roman celebration of force in favor of Jesus's humility and meekness. Ben-Hur's life and his recognition of the importance of faith and forgiveness in many ways parallels Jesus's own life. In a sense, Ben-Hur and Jesus are doubles. Through experiencing Ben-Hur's conversion from force to faith and from strength to salvation, readers experience a kind of conversion experience. Wallace is able to place the emotional details of Ben-Hur's life against the elaborately detailed backdrop of Jesus Christ's era.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 684
*Roman Empire. The broad context of the novel is the Roman Empire during the Golden Age of the Julio-Claudian emperors, who ruled from 27 b.c.e. to 68 c.e. This empire, the largest the world had yet known, extended more than eighteen hundred miles from west to east and included parts of three continents—Europe, Africa, and Asia. With more than 50,000,000 subjects under its protection, the empire was comparable in size to the continental United States.
In Lew Wallace’s novel, as in history, Rome has an ambiguous role. It represents both hostility and opportunity. Its hostility is exemplified in the crucifixion of Christ, the destruction of Jerusalem, the annihilation of the temple, and the expulsion of the Jews from their homeland. Opportunity is exemplified in the empire’s toleration of its Jewish subjects, who flourish in its cities. Ben Hur, the novel’s hero, is a Jew who obtains Roman citizenship and prospers within the Empire. Meanwhile, Christianity spreads rapidly over Roman highways and in the cities.
*Rome. Capital of the Roman Empire. This city, which ultimately will become a Christian Jerusalem in which Peter and Paul will preach and be martyred, is a powerful image throughout the novel. Rome and Jerusalem were founded around the same periods: Rome in the eighth century b.c.e. and Jerusalem about two and a half centuries earlier. One was the City of David, the other, the City of Caesar; Lew Wallace wanted to show both as “Cities of Christ.”
*Holy Land. Eastern Mediterranean region corresponding roughly to the area of modern Israel and Palestine that was the center of many of the stories of the Bible. The region has strong religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In Ben-Hur, the Holy Land is Judea, the home of the Jewish people in general and the prominent Jewish family Hur in particular. For Wallace, the Holy Land has the mixed imagery of birth (of Jesus and of Judaism) and death (crucifixion of Christ and destruction of Palestinian Jewry by the Romans).
The Hur family name means “cave” in Hebrew, and cave images appear several times in the novel, climaxing in the construction of secret underground worship spaces for Christians in the Roman catacombs.
*Jerusalem. Chief city of ancient Palestine whose name means “city of peace.” Since the time of King David, Jerusalem has been the political, religious, and cultural center of Judaism. The Jerusalem of Ben-Hur has been transformed by Roman occupation and has a Roman theater, a hippodrome, and an amphitheater—all of which help make it resemble a Greco-Roman metropolis. Because of this, the city was often known as Antioch Jerusalem (a symbolism not to be missed in the novel). Jerusalem has an ambivalent role in both the life of Jesus and in the novel. It is both home, or a place of allies—but it is also an alien element. The Hur family home, the leper caves, and the court of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate all reflect the ambivalence of the place.
*Antioch. Rich and important city situated on the Orontes River in Syria, some fifteen miles from the Mediterranean Sea, that was the cement holding together the classical world. Antioch was the second-most important city of the eastern Roman Empire, eclipsed only by Alexandria in Egypt. Not only did it command sea lanes to the west and south, it also was the terminus for transcontinental highways to Mesopotamia, Persia, and the East. Antioch attracted a diverse population, including many Jews and Christians. In Antioch the disciples of Jesus were first called “Christians” in a church founded by Peter, served later by Paul and Barnabas. As in history Antioch serves as a place of transition and maturation for Christianity (a kind of Second Jerusalem for the Early Church), it is also a town of transition for Ben-Hur. Antioch is a place of new beginnings, whether at a well (frequented by Balthasar, one of the Three Wise Men), or the arena, where old enemies can be humbled. The famed chariot race of Ben-Hur takes place in Antioch.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 457
Sources for Further Study
Allmendinger, Blake. “Toga! Toga!” In Over the Edge: Remapping the American West, edited by Valerie J. Matsumoto and Blake Allmendinger. Berkeley: University of California Press, with UCLA Center for Seventeenth-and Eighteenth-Century Studies and the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1999. Wallace’s depiction of the decline of barbaric Rome and the birth of Christianity helps justify United States expansion in the West. Ben-Hur also resembles the formulaic Western.
Eddings, Dennis W. “Lew Wallace.” In Nineteenth-Century American Fiction Writers, edited by Kent P. Ljungquist. Vol. 202 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1999. Brief biography and criticism of Wallace’s works, especially Ben-Hur. Contains lists of Wallace’s books and selected periodical publications as well of lists of biographies and further references.
Gutjahr, Paul. “’To the Heart of the Solid Puritans’: Historicizing the Popularity of Ben-Hur.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Comparative Study of Literature 26 (1993): 53-67. New historicist attempt to explain the contemporary reception of Ben-Hur as the Protestant response to scientific challenges to the literal truth of Bible.
Mayer, David, ed. Playing Out the Empire: “Ben-Hur” and Other Toga Plays and Films, 1883-1908: A Critical Anthology. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1994. Includes introductory commentary and notes on Wallace’s novel, William Young’s 1899 play, and the 1907 Kalem Company film version.
McKee, Irving. “Ben-Hur” Wallace: The Life of General Lew Wallace. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1947. Biography with an account of the writing of Ben-Hur. Useful listing of itineraries (1899-1920) of the play based on the novel; brief account of first movie (1925).
Morsberger, Robert E., and Katherine M. Morsberger. Lew Wallace: Militant Romantic. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980. Biography with a chapter recounting the writing of Ben-Hur, its critical and popular reception, its sales, the reasons for its success, and a three-page synopsis of the plot.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson. American Fiction: An Historical and Critical Survey. East Norwalk, Conn.: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1936. Praises Ben-Hur for its magnificent opening, presentation of rival forces (Judaism, Christianity, Roman imperialism), key dramatic scenes (lepers’ cell, naval battle, chariot race), absence of anti-Semitism, minor characters, and relation of all characters to Ben-Hur.
Theisen, Lee Scott. “’My God, Did I Set All of This in Motion?’ General Lew Wallace and Ben-Hur.” Journal of Popular Culture 18 (1984): 33-41. Account of the writing of Ben-Hur, its sales, Wallace’s activities on the lecture circuit, the stage version, the first and second movie versions (1925 and 1959), and reasons for the novel’s success.
Thorp, Willard. “The Religious Novel as Best Seller in America.” In Religious Perspectives in American Culture, edited by James Ward Smith and A. Leland Jamison. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961. Places Ben-Hur in the context of novels concerning Christ. Accords it unique praise for presenting many varieties of life and for successfully using massive amounts of detail.