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  • Jon Taylor

Ben- Hur and the story behind the story


I have watched this movie many times and have been positively influenced by it, the 1959 version that is. But this is not a film review, because the message of ‘Ben-Hur’ surpasses a classic tale written and performed on the big screen. To delve deeper, it is helpful to know something of the author and the transforming events in his life, the era, and circumstances when he lived and the timeless message he strived to communicate.

Four versions of Ben-Hur have been produced on film, though even the 1959 version which was showered with awards and is remembered mostly for the nine- minute chariot race is a shadow of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, one of the best-selling novels of all time. It is a most difficult task to produce a novel which is theologically watertight, contextually reliable and which stands the test of time. Ben-Hur, like the great hymns, falls rightly within this category.

The background

Lew Wallace followed the sceptical tradition of Sir William Ramsey, Frank Morison and Lee Strobel who were initially hostile to the gospel. Of his own admission he was no protégé or child genius whilst growing up; quite the opposite in fact, though he enjoyed and took an increasing interest in writing, drawing and the outdoor life.

‘When the Civil War between the Unionist and Confederate states broke out in April 1861, Wallace abandoned everything and rushed to the Union’s front line. He didn’t just fight; he wanted to lead.[i] Wallace was reluctantly involved in law and tried his hand at politics and became Governor of New Mexico, which was a dangerous; in some ways an unenviable undertaking. Later he served as US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Somehow, he managed to meticulously research and write Ben Hur over a seven- year period.

For the most part his book demonstrates an acute understanding of the Second Temple period, awareness of Jewish manners and customs and Messianic expectations plus a breath of understanding concerning the ancient world and religions. He shows an appreciation of Zoroastrianism not just in relation to the magi but with reference to the Persian Empire. The depth of his reading was such that he makes an almost casual reference to Jaddua the High Priest meeting Alexander the Great in Jerusalem, clearly drawing from his studies in Josephus and other great Jewish writings.

Wallace derived Judah Ben-Hur, the protagonist of the novel, from the life and works of Josephus. Wallace’s Autobiography [2.891] reports that at the Library of Congress in 1873 he researched “everything on the shelves relating to the Jews.” Using Whiston’s translation, Wallace found in the Vita that the Jewish Josephus had been an anti-Roman commander, was captured by the Romans, and received both favor in Rome and citizenship as a Flavian; earlier he survived a shipwreck [BJ 2.7]. These major events in the life of Josephus provided a template for the events in the life of Judah Ben-Hur. Even more directly, the nomen of Josephus’ son, Flavius Simonides Agrippa, supplied the name for Judah’s faithful associate, Simonides. Josephus also details the career of the first-century, anti-Roman Zealot, Judas of Galilee [BJ 18.4], and in the novel Judah’s raised three anti-Roman legions in Galilee, and Judas is mentioned in a Galilean context several times. Wallace also derives his discursions on Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes from Josephus [AJ 13.5.9], and in identifying Judah as a Sadducee he establishes the cultural and theological justification for his vengeful quest to destroy his Roman adversary Messala. (Nonetheless, in the 1959 film it is Messala who is portrayed as the aggressor.)[ii]

For the cynical, Lew Wallace’s coming to faith may appear a coincidental event, though the change in his thinking and writing demonstrate that is obviously not the case and that his convictions were firmly and wisely grounded in reality. Wallace engaged in a good- natured theological debate on a train journey which shocked him in view of his ignorance and which he sought to keenly address. Faithful are the wounds of a friend! Who knows the outcome of the conversations we might have, with strangers aboard a coach, train, or an aeroplane? Like Ramsay, Morison, McDowell and Strobel, Wallace followed the evidence intensively. For Wallace this involved a visit to Jerusalem before his spiritual awakening. Ben-Hur is a tale of redemption and forgiveness which ultimately points the reader toward the Author of Life.

The Story

Wallace in a masterly way threads several plots and characters into the narrative. Unlike the film, the magi feature at the beginning and end of the book and at the birth and crucifixion narratives. They have a fascinating religious discourse early on, outlining their respective positions causing the reader to reflect on what they did and did not know before meeting the Lord at his birth.

Judah Ben-Hur was friends with the equally privileged and wealthy Roman Messala and his family from his early youth. The almost inevitable tension between Jew and Roman at that time became increasingly fractured and Ben-Hur somehow keeps his composure when patronisingly goaded by Messala. True it is that Judah Ha Nasi and Marcus Aurelius in later time became close friends and Gamaliel mentioned in Acts 5:34 and Acts 22:2 was friendly with various people groups. For many at this time however, Jewish-Roman relations had grown inevitably bitter. One day in an inopportune incident, Judah Ben-Hur watches the Roman army enter the narrow streets whilst he accidently rests his arm on a loose tile from his rooftop residence, which falls striking a Roman governor and which seems to seal his fate.

Messala is vengeful and Judah Ben Hur is assigned to be a rowing galley slave with the Roman naval fleet. The awful conditions, monotony of the task and perils of the sea and warfare meant that to survive a year was most likely longer than the average person consigned to that unenviable lot, could last for. Judah Ben-Hur survives five years and to cut a long story short is ship- wrecked, saves the life of the commanding officer Quintus Arrius, who rewards him fittingly in kind and considers him a son. Nonetheless Judah is motivated to survive by love and revenge in equal measure. Love for his sister Tirzah and mother, Miriam who he does not know whether they are alive or dead, and revenge on Messala and the Romans.

Judah Ben-Hur hears about the Messiah and is especially impressed by His miracles and is keen to learn more. Having said that he is confused as to how He will establish His kingdom. Like many others anticipating and eagerly desiring His arrival, Judah expects the Romans to be crushed and removed, a political kingdom established with immediate effect and peaceful conditions to ensue in the messianic kingdom. Ben-Hur is willing to bear arms and to take the lead to achieve that. His former plan and major ‘sub-plot’, involves an epic and death- defying chariot contest where he seeks his revenge on his adversary Messala. There is more at stake than even ‘a race within a race’ namely a Ben-Hur versus Messala showdown, as he seeks to gain a political victory over the Romans and to humiliate them. This is accompanied by some high- stake, poker faced gambling fuelled by pride and the settling of scores. These are the moments when people hold their breath as the mighty steeds speed around the arena, and Ben-Hur is victorious, Messala critically injured though the story does not end there.

He seeks out his beloved Tirzah and Miriam at the old family home which to add insult to injury has become Roman property. They had become lepers isolated to a colony, dependent for food and survival from a former house servant who was treated as family. One of the cruel aspects of that affliction was the separation from loved ones and no known cure. They had become aware of Judah’s survival though were reluctant to reveal themselves in view of their fateful condition and think that for him not to see them would be a greater mercy.

Another theme is the gain of his affection. Judah Ben Hur is very nearly won over by Iras, a beautiful Egyptian who flatters and has a hold on him that is, until she disapproves of his convictions concerning Jesus the Nazarene. Her motivations are then apparent. Later on, Esther a faithful, devout, and unassuming Jewess of beauty and fine character marries Judah Ben Hur and graciously forgives Iras for her scheming and conniving. Ben-Hur was willing to forgive her and makes the effort to do so. But what brought about that uncommon forgiveness and change of heart? In the 1959 film it was Ben-Hur and Messala that are similarly reconciled at the end of the movie when Messala who attempted to bring down Ben-Hur in any means possible was crippled and run over by a chariot.

The closing chapters of the book race along at breakneck speed and hold the reader’s attention. Ben-Hur’s sister and mother are healed of their leprosy. Ben-Hur comes to recognise that from the prophecies, miracles, and events that Jesus is the promised Messiah. At the crucifixion, the darkness covers the land and an earthquake follows. The Messiah had to die, and He willingly died, seemingly going against the commonly held expectations of an immediate political messianic government.

Ben-Hur centres around the first coming of our Lord. In the same way that the Lord Jesus ascended to heaven, He shall return in like manner (Acts 1:11). When He returns, He will come not on a colt, the foal of a donkey, but on a white horse as Lord of Lord and King of Kings (Revelation 19:11-16). He will return to Jerusalem and from there He shall reign. Since the Lord Jesus lived a perfect sinless life, rose again, and fulfilled the messianic credentials and prophesies perfectly the first- time round, we can be absolutely certain that He will return and fulfil the remaining ones when He returns.

The beginning and the end

So we end where we began. Lew Wallace experienced transformation in his thinking and in his life. Ben-Hur is more than a best- selling book or a block buster movie. The Bible is more than the best- selling book in the world and the Lord is much more than the greatest Man who ever lived. Ben-Hur is a story of perfect redemption and forgiveness. The questions remain. Have you met with the Author of life? Have you been saved and redeemed? Have you had your sins forgiven? Are you like Wallace and willing to follow the evidence and be changed from within? If so, the gospel will also become your story and you will encounter the Saviour of the world. Then the things of this world will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.

[i] Lew Wallace Ben Hur (Harper Collins, 2016; London), pvi [ii] Jon Solomon Josephus and Judah Ben-Hur https://classicalstudies.org/annual-meeting/146/abstract/josephus-and-judah-ben-hur

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