Last Updated on September 5, 2023, 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.