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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.

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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.

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 684

*Roman Empire

*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

*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...

(The entire section contains 1450 words.)

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