The subtitle of the novel, A Tale of the Christ, is misleading in that Christ, far from providing the novel’s focus, appears only rarely and speaks only toward the end. However, it is against the backdrop of Christ’s divine sorrow at human sin and pain that the all-too-human Ben-Hur comes to realize that the world needs a redeeming savior of souls rather than a king of the Jews who will bring about military dominion.
Ben-Hur has been given good reason to hate the Romans and to long for revenge. He does gain revenge against the Roman Messala. However, he continues to wish for the defeat and humiliation of the world power that occupies his country. Like Simonides, who wishes to bankroll Jesus as a military commander, Ben-Hur also thinks and desires in human, not divine, terms, dreaming of the Messiah as a military leader. Even after Christ’s arrest in Gethsemane, he trails the bound man, asking if he will accept help if Ben-Hur brings it. He stumbles along until he reaches an awakening to Christ’s true nature and God’s plan, and learns to submit to that plan and forsake revenge. In the end, only the cross can bring him to that awakening.
Christ’s regenerating power is most vividly made concrete in the curing of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister, who feel a spiritual as well as physical purification after their cleansing.
It takes a brave writer to attempt to portray Christ in a novel. The otherworldly nature of Christ’s kingdom is reflected in a depiction of the Savior that is conventional and unsatisfying and has the concept of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” as its apparent source. His Christ has long-lashed blue eyes; words like “pallor,” “gentleness,” “delicacy,” “tenderness,” and “softness” are applied to him. Little attempt is made to capture the slow agony of the Crucifixion.