For “A Tale of the Christ,” General Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur does not feature a great deal of the life of Jesus on first glance. This 1880 novel, since made into a couple feature films and reportedly in production for another, reputedly outsold all books in the 19th century aside from the Bible, surpassing Uncle Tom’s Cabin and holding that place until the arrival of Gone with the Wind. I say “reputedly” because I’ve heard a similar claim made for Shepherd of the Hills.
What makes this novel such a compelling story? The character of Judah Ben-Hur begins life as a member of a wealthy and influential family, someone whose family is profiting from the pax Romana but who is not a Roman himself. Through an improbable series of events, Judah finds himself sold off to row a slave galley while his mother and sister are stripped of the family’s position and possessions and imprisoned in a hidden cell within the Fortress Antonia where they are virtually certain to contract leprosy.
No wonder Judah Ben-Hur was out to get revenge. On the other hand, not everything has gone badly for this son of Israel. Even as he is being carted off to a certain lingering death under harsh slavery, he is given a needed drink of water by a mysterious youth in Galilee. Later, Judah manages to survive a shipwreck and rescue the admiral, earning that man’s loyalty and adoption. Judah’s wealth, we discover hasn’t completely disappeared and has indeed been expanded by a loyal servant of his father.
The reader, plodding through this lengthy and involved book, wonders whether Judah will manage to gain his revenge, reunite with his now-leprous family, find true love with one of the appealing young women he encounters, regain his lofty position, and avoid the murderous plots of those brutish Romans. And then there’s that whole question about how this is “A Tale of the Christ.”
The appeal of this book to late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century readers is clear. It is exciting and complicated. We have villains to jeer and heroes to cheer. A character who seems a friend turns out to be faithless. And then there’s that chariot race, exciting on the page and on the screen.
Judah Ben-Hur is a strong man, a man of action. He stands up for himself, not thinking to “turn the other cheek” toward his enemies, yet he does all of this with almost perfect honor. Sure, he intentionally causes his rival Messala to crash in the chariot race, but we’ve known that Messala had that coming for many, many pages. What’s not to enjoy in such a story. Plus, Judah winds up choosing the lovely and modest Esther, the daughter of his loyal servant, over the glamorous and beautiful Iras, daughter of the Magi Balthasar. This choice is the classic triumph of virtuous and simple beauty over a more worldly beauty.
In the end, the pious reader can marvel at the effects of Jesus, who finally makes a significant appearance in the book, on Judah. Not only does the hero realize that his efforts to lead a rebellion against the despised Roman occupation are foolish, but he sees his mother and sister healed by Jesus. It is only after his encounter with Jesus that Judah reaches true understanding and happiness. And happily for the reader, that revelation took place after the chariot race and other adventures.
In short, Lew Wallace succeeds in crafting a pious romance by giving the reader the whole package: a measure of revenge, a strong and forceful hero, a worthwhile love story, and a conclusion that you can take to church on Sunday.