I can’t believe I’d never read this before! Such a gem! It reminded me a great deal of “The Count of Monte Cristo” at least for the first half or so, since the theme of betrayal and revenge drove the plot. But after that, the story abruptly changes course. It’s interesting that it’s billed as “A Tale of the Christ,” since Jesus has only a few short cameos, though He ends up being a primary motivator for the second half of the story.
The book opens with a retelling of Jesus’ birth, from the perspective of the three wise men. Then it skips ahead some 20 years in time.
Judah Ben-Hur is a Jew living in first century Rome, and he’s a contemporary of Jesus, of about the same age. We meet his betrayer in the same scene where we meet Ben-Hur himself: a Roman called Messala who grew up with him, but who now has ambitions that require him to leave his old friend behind. He unequivocally insults and humiliates Ben-Hur in their farewell encounter, so that he can climb the ranks of the Roman military. Rome’s new governor rides into Judea with pomp and circumstance, and Judah and his sister watch the procession from their magnificent roof–only a roof tile dislodges and happens to fall on the new governor’s head. He’s only knocked out, but Messala seizes upon the opportunity to make Ben-Hur out to be a militant Zionist who will lead a revolution against Rome. Ben-Hur is sent to be a slave where he is expected to die in service, first in mine shafts and then rowing on a battleship. But his determination to live, to return, and to pay Messala back keeps him going. A series of unlikely events transpires in which Ben-Hur saves a titled Roman from a sinking ship, and said Roman is so grateful that he adopts Ben-Hur as his son. Not only is he no longer a slave at that point, but he is wealthy again too.
With his new Roman name, Ben-Hur returns incognito to reclaim the inheritance stewarded for him by his family slave, Simonides. The former slave has a beautiful daughter named Esther who falls in love with Judah, but it’s unrequited (at least for much of the story). Simonides and Esther are also in contact with one of the wise men at the opening of the story, who has an Egyptian daughter named Iras whom Ben-Hur loves instead. Judah is desperate to know what happened to his mother and sister in all his years away, but can’t seem to learn the answer–no one will speak of them. Meanwhile, a sheik conscripts Ben-Hur to drive his horses in an upcoming chariot race against Messala and others, which is probably the most famous scene in the film, at least. Of course Ben-Hur wins, and in the process Messala is not only beggared but also crippled. He sends assassins, whom Ben-Hur wins over to his side.
I suppose one of the definitions of an epic is that the story spans a great deal of time and doesn’t follow a single plot line. Eventually after Ben-Hur has essentially succeeded in his triumph over Messala–which is all but over after the chariot race, oddly enough–he turns his sights instead to becoming the very thing Messala accused him of being: a revolutionary. The Jews expected that the Messiah would come as an earthly king, and many of them assumed that He would overthrow Rome then and there. Judah decided that he would use his power, influence, and wealth to train an army to follow Jesus the moment He decided to declare Himself king. Unfortunately for Judah, that was not Jesus’ mission.
Ben-Hur’s mother and sister, meanwhile, were thrown into prison in further punishment for his supposed insurrection, where they became lepers. They were eventually released from prison, but continued to live in the leper colony. A loving servant learned that Jesus healed lepers, though, and brought them to Him just as He was entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The scene where Jesus heals them, I think, was the best part of the whole book–it brought me to tears. So even though Judah suffers the terrible disappointment that Jesus wasn’t going to do what he’d hoped, after the crucifixion, Judah is reunited with his mother and sister, who are now whole.
It’s a bit weird to me that the story ends there, and not at the resurrection. But I suppose Wallace thought the story is Judah’s, and not the gospel story. He wasn’t likely to renew his expectation that Jesus would become an earthly king post-resurrection, so why tell that part, when the readers all know what happens next anyway? It still felt a little weird, but I can see why he made that choice.
Regardless, a fantastic epic!
My rating: *****
Violence: present but not gratuitous (although the description of leprosy was a bit much)
Sexual content: none
Political content: none