Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, by Lew Wallace (American classic, Biblical)

“In first century Judaea, Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur is betrayed by his childhood friend Messala and sentenced to life as a Roman slave. When, during a pirate attack in the Aegean, Ben-Hur saves the life of a galley commander, his fortunes improve and he returns to Galilee a free man. There, his quest for vengeance turns into insurrection, but his life is transformed when he witnesses Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist.”

Movie photo for Ben-Hur, 1959
Ben-Hur 1959

When I was a child, one of the three big television networks in the U.S. ran the film Ben-Hur [1959] every year around Easter. In those days, the only way to watch a motion picture was to see it in a theater when it came out or watch it on network television. There was no streaming. There were no DVDs. There was no cable TV. There weren’t even video cassettes! When one of the networks broadcast a major motion picture like Ben-Hur, it was a big deal. Families like mine made arrangements to watch it, because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t get the chance to see it again for another year.

Because of that, the movie Ben-Hur not only became a part of my Easter tradition, it became ingrained in my consciousness. I loved this film as a child, and I still love it as an adult. It should be no surprise, then, that shortly after I became a part of the Great Books Group, I suggested that we read Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Imagine my own surprise at the time when, after reading a good part of the book, I realized that I didn’t care for it enough to even finish it.

All of the other ladies in the group, however, loved it. I don’t remember the details of the discussion, but I do remember that it was a heated one. Fundamentally, I liked the movie better than the book. I thought it was more complex in the way it developed the characters and portrayed the Roman Empire—which in the book feels like a caricature of evil. In the movie, Judah Ben-Hur’s quest for revenge against his childhood friend Messala was more personal; in the book, it was leveled at the Roman Empire itself. I could certainly understand some of the feelings that would urge a young man like Ben-Hur to choose the path of revolution, but back in 2007, the story simply didn’t compel me.

Book cover for Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, by Lew Wallace
Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace

I decided to give Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ another try, and I’m glad I did. It’s been a few years since I’ve watched the film, so this time around, I was able to approach it from a far more unbiased point of view, although Judah Ben-Hur is still Charlton Heston in my mind. During this reading, I found many parts of the book very compelling, both on the story level and the philosophical. Ben-Hur’s quest for revenge against the Roman Empire becomes entangled with his desire to lead the military force that will establish the glorious new reign of the prophesied King. His revenge takes on this more ambitious focus largely because of his acquaintance with the Egyptian Balthasar, one of the Wise Men. Balthasar has seen the Christ-child and testifies of Him whenever the opportunity arises. He has his own opinion about what sort of leader the Child will grow up to be, and others have different ones, including the influential sheik Ilderim. Balthasar explains:

“Men say, I know, that there will be no happiness until Rome is razed from her hills. That is to say, the ills of the time are not, as I thought them, from ignorance of God, but from the misgovernment of rulers. Do we need to be told that human governments are never for the sake of religion? How many kings have you heard of who were better than their subjects? Oh no, no! The Redemption cannot be for a political purpose—to pull down rulers and powers, and vacate their places merely that others may take and enjoy them. If that were all of it, the wisdom of God would cease to be surpassing. I tell you, though it be but the saying of blind to blind, he that comes is to be a Savior of souls; and the Redemption means God once more on earth, and righteousness, that his stay here may be tolerable to himself.”

Disappointment showed plainly on Ben-Hur’s face—his head drooped; and if he was not convinced, he yet felt himself incapable that moment of disputing the opinion of the Egyptian. Not so Ilderim.

“By the splendor of God!” he cried, impulsively, “the judgment does away with all custom. The ways of the world are fixed, and cannot be changed. There must be a leader in every community clothed with power, else there is no reform.”

Balthasar received the burst gravely. “Thy wisdom, good sheik, is of the world; and thou dost forget that it is from the ways of the world we are to be redeemed. Man as a subject is the ambition of a king; the soul of a man for its salvation is the desire of a God.”

Book 4, Chapter 16

Ilderim’s observation stems from his own experience on how the political world works. Ben-Hur’s desire to serve the new King by leading His military force is based in a cultural view of prophecy that narrows the mission of the King to this mortal life alone and for one race of people instead of humanity as a whole. Ben-Hur, in fact, although he believes Balthasar’s story, has a difficult time accepting such a radical spiritual observation from one who isn’t of the house of Israel and not well-versed in Jewish prophecy.

The conflict between the vision of Christ’s mission as it really is and what Ben-Hur wants it to be provides the dramatic tension for the final parts of the book. Ben-Hur has to decide whether he accepts the true mission of the King and Redeemer or whether he will put his great military training and political influence to use and fill the role of national savior himself.

In the end, we all have to make the same choice—do we use our training and talents to expand the Kingdom of God on this earth—in the way that He directs—or do we use them for our own self-aggrandizement? Or do we stumble along, trying to do His work our way?

Here’s another quotation from the book that helps us understand Christ’s mission to us individually and how it transcends anything a mere mortal could devise:

It is not extreme to say, if there was a sudden exit of all men from the world, heaven, as prefigured in the Christian idea, would not be a heaven to the majority; on the other hand, neither would all suffer equally in the so-called Tophet. Cultivation has its balances. As the mind is made intelligent, the capacity of the soul for pure enjoyment is proportionally increased. Well, therefore, if it be saved! If lost, however, alas that it ever had cultivation! its capacity for enjoyment in the one case is the measure of its capacity to suffer in the other. Wherefore repentance must be something more than mere remorse for sins; it comprehends a change of nature befitting heaven.

Book 6, Chapter 2

The photo “A Crown of Thorns” can be found in the collection of Gospel Media at