Themes

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Last Updated on March 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 674

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is a novel based around the Biblical life of Jesus Christ during the time of Roman rule over Israel. Author Lewis "Lew" Wallace (1827–1905) endeavored to write this book after he had a conversation with an agnostic about religion. He decided that writing the...

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Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is a novel based around the Biblical life of Jesus Christ during the time of Roman rule over Israel. Author Lewis "Lew" Wallace (1827–1905) endeavored to write this book after he had a conversation with an agnostic about religion. He decided that writing the novel would provide an opportunity for him to do more research about his faith.

Friendship and Betrayal

Judah Ben-Hur is friends with Messala, a Roman boy, from a young age. Because Judah Ben-Hur is part of a prominent Jewish family in Jerusalem, their friendship is allowed to blossom despite rising political conflict. This friendship is put to the test when Ben-Hur is accused of an assassination attempt after he slips on the roof of his home during a parade, sending a tile crashing down on a Roman prefect and killing him. Messala betrays Ben-Hur's friendship by telling the Romans who lives in that home; after this, Ben-Hur is arrested and judged without fair trial. When Ben-Hur returns from his time as a galley slave, he encounters Messala over and over. These encounters are tainted by Messala's betrayal, and this fuels Ben-Hur's rage until he comes to see Messala as an enemy rather than a friend. They try to kill each other through chariot races and hired assassins until Messala finally meets his end.

Judah's relationship with Messala represents the moral conflicts that arise during the pursuit of vengeance. Judah's hatred of Messala and of the Roman Empire at large blind him to Christ's true message. It is only after he watches Jesus accept Judas's and his follower's betrayal with grace that Judah is able to understand the spiritual message of the messiah. Though Judah ultimately achieves his vengeance against Messala, he forfeits his grudge against Rome and instead devotes himself and his resources to providing sanctuary for Roman Christian. Though Judah is primarily a witness to Christ's life rather than a participant in it, his offering of wine vinegar to the dying Christ represents an act of grace and mercy. Christ's love and mercy ultimately guide Judah away from the path of betrayal, indicating that if one puts their faith in God, then they will always have a true friend.

Politics and the Individual

Messala's loyalty to the Roman Empire leads him to betray Ben-Hur, his childhood friend and trusted companion. Ben-Hur is caught up in the Roman conflict with the Jews as soon as this betrayal occurs, serving as a slave to the Empire. Through the kindness of strangers and the providence of God, Ben-Hur survives to become a Roman charioteer. He is adopted by the galley's captain and becomes a Roman freedman; he struggles with this, as he remembers his sister and mother, whom he left behind and who have since contracted leprosy. The political struggle becomes internal for Ben-Hur, as he embraces different aspects of his new identity while trying to cling to his Jewish heritage. Ultimately, Ben-Hur seems to think that there can be no resolution to this political conflict, though he prays that the Jewish Messiah can provide salvation.

Revenge and Redemption

Ben-Hur's experiences in betrayal, unfair judgement, and constant inner conflict cause him to become full of rage and driven to revenge. Through the majority of the book, revenge is what drives Ben-Hur to survive—and then to thrive. It proves to be a consuming struggle, and Ben-Hur finds that revenge is unfulfilling after he hears of Messala's death. Ben-Hur's victories in revenge leave him empty, and the only peace he finds is in his brief encounters with Jesus Christ. He becomes a follower of Jesus after he discovers his mother and sisters alive and healed of their leprosy by Jesus; he himself was kept alive by the gift of water from Jesus's hands while he was still a slave. Through Jesus's teachings, Ben-Hur abandons his thirst for revenge by seeking redemption instead. He gives his troubles to God and takes refuge in faith rather than in victory over his enemies, and he becomes a righteous and prosperous man as a result.

Christian Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 314

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.

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