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First edition, 1880
|Publisher||Harper & Brothers|
|November 12, 1880|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
First edition, 1880
|Publisher||Harper & Brothers|
|November 12, 1880|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is a novel by Lew Wallace published on November 12, 1880 by Harper & Brothers. Considered "the most influential Christian book of the nineteenth century", it was the best-selling American novel from the time of its publication, superseding Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). It remained at the top until the publication of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936). Following release of the 1959 MGM film adaptation of Ben-Hur, which was seen by tens of millions and won 11 Academy Awards in 1960, book sales surpassed Gone with the Wind. Blessed by Pope Leo XIII, the novel was the first work of fiction to be so honored.
The story recounts the adventures of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince and merchant in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 1st century. Judah's childhood friend Messala returns home as an ambitious commanding officer of the Roman legions. They come to realize that they have changed and hold very different views and aspirations. During a military parade, a loose tile is accidentally dislodged from the roof of Judah's house and hits the Roman governor, knocking him from his horse. Although Messala knows that they are not guilty of attempted assassination, he condemns the Ben-Hur family. Without trial, Judah is sent to the Roman galleys for life; his mother and sister are imprisoned in a cell previously used for lepers and all the family property is confiscated.
Through good fortune, befriending and saving the commander of his ship, Judah survives and is trained as a soldier. He returns to Jerusalem, where he seeks revenge against his one-time friend and redemption for his family. Running in parallel with Ben-Hur's narrative is the unfolding story of Jesus, who comes from the same region and is a similar age. The two reflect themes of betrayal, conviction and redemption. With the Crucifixion, Ben-Hur recognizes that the Christ stands for a different goal than revenge, and he becomes Christian, turning to supporting the new religion with money which he has inherited, inspired by love and the talk of keys to a greater kingdom than any on earth.
The name "Ben Hur" derives from the Hebrew for "Son of white linen".
By 1880, Wallace had already published another novel and a play. He went on to publish several more novels and biographies, but Ben-Hur was his most significant work. As influence for its writing, he recounted his life-changing journey and talk in 1875 with Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, whom he met on a train. During the journey Ingersoll, a well known agnostic quizzed Wallace about the history of Christ and the ideas of the religion. Wallace realized during the conversation how little he knew about Christianity. He wrote, "I was ashamed of myself, and make haste now to declare that the mortification of pride I then endured...ended in a resolution to study the whole matter." Writing about Christianity helped him become clear about his own ideas and beliefs. Wallace developed the novel Ben Hur from his exploration.
Wishing for the novel to be historically accurate, Wallace gathered references concerning the Middle East during the time period of his novel, visiting libraries all over America and studying the Bible closely, to give his story authenticity. He intended to identify the plants, birds, names, architectural practices and so on. He wrote, "I examined catalogues of books and maps, and sent for everything likely to be useful. I wrote with a chart always before my eyes—a German publication showing the towns and villages, all sacred places, the heights, the depressions, the passes, trails, and distances." He recounts traveling to research the exact proportions for the Roman triremes. On visiting the Holy Land many years later, he found that his estimations in the story were proved accurate and that he could "find no reason for making a single change in the text of the book." He gives four pages to describing the chariot race and the stadium where it is held:
Let the reader try to fancy it; let him first look down on the arena, and see it glistening in its frame of dull-gray granite walls; let him then, in this perfect field, see the chariots, light of wheel, very graceful, and ornate ... let the reader see the accompanying shadows fly; and, with such distinctness as the picture comes, he may share the satisfaction and deeper pleasure of those to whom it was a thrilling fact, not a feeble fancy.
Ben-Hur was inspired in part by Wallace's love of the novel The Count of Monte Cristo (1846) by Alexandre Dumas, père. Dumas's novel was based on the memoirs of a French shoemaker in the early 19th century, who was unjustly imprisoned and spent the rest of his life seeking revenge. In his autobiography, Wallace said that while he was writing Ben-Hur "at my rough pine-table, the Count of Monte Cristo in his dungeon of stone was not more lost to the world." The historian Victor Davis Hanson argues that the novel is based on Wallace's own life, particularly his experiences as a division commander during the American Civil War under General Grant. At the Battle of Shiloh, Grant's army sustained heavy casualties, which caused a furor in the North. Wallace's controversial command decisions during the battle drew accusations of incompetence, doing permanent damage to his military reputation. The chariot race between Ben-Hur and Messala may be based on a horserace Wallace reportedly ran against Grant—who Wallace believed unjustly impugned his reputation—after Shiloh.
Wallace wrote most of the book in Crawfordsville, Indiana, where his favorite place was underneath a beech tree (since called the Ben-Hur Beech) near his house. He completed the novel in the New Mexico Territory while he was serving as territorial governor. His room in the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe was once described in tours as the birthplace of Ben-Hur. In his memoir, Wallace wrote that he composed the climactic scenes of the crucifixion in his room by lantern light, after returning from a dramatic encounter with Henry McCarty, better known as Billy the Kid. With the work finished, Wallace visited Harper and Brothers in New York to present the manuscript, which he had written in purple ink. Joseph Harper praised it as "the most beautiful manuscript that has ever come into this house. A bold experiment to make Christ a hero that has been often tried and always failed." The manuscript has survived and is held by the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.
Publication of the book prompted speculation about Wallace’s faith. It was said he was an atheist and had gone to the Holy Land to disprove the existence of Christ or that he had always been a dedicated practicing Christian. Wallace said in his autobiography:
In the very beginning, before distractions overtake me, I wish to say that I believe absolutely in the Christian conception of God. As far as it goes, this confession is broad and unqualified, and it ought and would be sufficient were it not that books of mine—Ben-Hur and The Prince of India—have led many persons to speculate concerning my creed .... I am not a member of any church or denomination, nor have I ever been. Not that churches are objectionable to me, but simply because my freedom is enjoyable, and I do not think myself good enough to be a communicant.
He wrote further:
The Christian world would not tolerate a novel with Jesus Christ its hero, and I knew it ... He should not be present as an actor in any scene of my creation. The giving a cup of water to Ben-Hur at the well near Nazareth is the only violation of this rule ... I would be religiously careful that every word He uttered should be a literal quotation from one of His sainted biographers. [...] When I had finished [the writing], I said to myself with Balthasar, "God only is so great." I had become a believer.
Since its first publication, Ben-Hur has never been out of print. It has been called "the most influential Christian book written in the nineteenth century", and Carl Van Doren wrote that the novel was, along with Uncle Tom's Cabin, the first fiction many Americans read. Between 1880 and 1912 the book sold an estimated one million copies, and by 1893 a study found that Ben-Hur was the most widely held contemporary novel in libraries, with 83% possessing copies. The book was so popular in both the North and South that one scholar has written that "Wallace's Ben-Hur helped to reunite the nation in the years following Reconstruction". General Grant, President James Garfield, and Jefferson Davis were all enthusiastic fans, and Southerners likely well received the Union general's sympathetic description of the Jews as a conquered people. By 1900 it had been printed in 36 English-language editions and translated into 20 other languages, including Indonesian and Braille. In 1912, Sears Roebuck published another one million copies to sell for 39 cents apiece, the largest single-year print edition in American history. It outsold every book except the Bible until Gone With the Wind came out in 1936. After the 1959 release of the film based on the book, the novel returned to the top of the list in the 1960s. It often appears on popular lists of great American literature, which has been a source of frustration for many literary critics over the years.
Critics point to problems such as flat characters and dialogue, unlikely coincidences driving the plot, and tedious and lengthy descriptions of settings. But others note its well-structured plot and exciting story, with its unusual mix of romanticism, spiritual piety, action and adventure. A 1905 review from the New York Times noted that Ben Hur was Wallace's "Masterwork". It further noted, "Ben Hur appealed to the unsophisticated and unliterary. People who read much else of worth rarely read Ben Hur".
While other Biblical novels such as The Prince of the House of David (1855) had preceded Ben-Hur, it was among the first to make Jesus a major character. While Wallace only used dialogue from the King James Bible for Jesus' words, he was innovative in creating fictional scenes involving Jesus and including a detailed physical description of the Christ. Many clergy and others praised Wallace's detailed description of the Middle East during Jesus' lifetime, and at least one former alcoholic wrote the author a letter crediting Ben-Hur with causing him to reject alcohol and find religion. Many 19th-century American clergy encouraged their congregations to read the book. Such religious support helped it to become one of the best-selling novels of its time. It not only reduced lingering American resistance to the novel as a literary form, but later adaptations were instrumental in introducing some Christian audiences to theater and film.
After the novel's publication in 1880, Wallace was deluged with requests to dramatize it, but refused them all. He objected in principle to the portrayal of Christ on stage. The dramatist William Young suggested a solution—that Jesus should be represented by a beam of light. Wallace was impressed and agreed to the stage adaptation. The result was the play Ben Hur—a smash hit. From 1899 it played in theatres for a total of 21 years, and was seen by more than 20 million people. The key spectacle of the show was a live chariot race using real horses and real chariots—coming at a time "when theatre was yearning to be cinema."
When the play was produced in Britain, The Era's drama critic described how the chariot race was achieved by "four great cradles, 20ft in length and 14ft wide, which are movable back and front on railways". The horses galloped towards the audience, but were secured by invisible steel cable traces and ran on treadmills. Electric rubber rollers spun the chariot wheels. The horses drove the movement of a vast cyclorama backdrop, which revolved in the opposite direction to create an illusion of rapid speed, and fans created clouds of dust. The production had imported 30 tons of stage equipment from the United States, employed a cast of over 100, and featured fountains, palm trees, and the sinking of a Roman galley. The critic for The Illustrated London News described it as "a marvel of stage-illusion" that was "memorable beyond all else". The Sketch's critic called it "thrilling and realistic ... enough to make the fortune of any play" and noted that "the stage, which has to bear 30 tons' weight of chariots and horses, besides huge crowds, has had to be expressly strengthened and shored up."
Ben Hur Live was staged at the Greenwich O2 arena, London, in 2009. It featured the live chariot race, as well as gladiatorial combat and a sea battle. The production used 46 horses, 500 tons of special sand, and 400 cast and crew. All the show's dialogue is in the Latin and Aramaic of the period, with voice-over narration. Despite the massive staging, it was criticized for lack of theatrical imagination. The Battersea Arts Centre in London staged a lower-key version of Ben-Hur in 2002, featuring a limited cast of 10 and staging the chariot race.
The development of the cinema following the novel's publication, saw film adaptations in 1907, 1925, 1959, 2003, and a North American TV mini-series in 2010. The 1959 film adaptation of Ben Hur, starring Charlton Heston, won a record eleven Academy awards and was the top-grossing film of 1960. Gore Vidal, who co-wrote the film, stated that he had added a homo-erotic sub-text. BBC radio dramatized the book with Jamie Glover as Ben Hur (first broadcast, UK March 1995).
At least eight translations of the book into Hebrew were made from 1959 to 1990. Some of these versions have involved wholesale restructuring of the narrative, including changes to character, dropping of Christian themes, and plot. The Israeli academic Nitsa Ben-Ari discusses the complex socio-political context of these translations and changes in her paper, The double conversion of Ben-Hur: a case of manipulative translation.
Biblical references: Matt. 2:1-12, Luke 2:1-20
Three Magi have come from the East. Balthasar, an Egyptian, sets up a tent in the desert, where he is joined by Melchior, a Hindu, and Gaspar, a Greek. They discover they have been brought together by their common goal. They see a bright star shining over the region, and take it as a sign to leave, following it through the desert toward the province of Judaea.
At the Joppa Gate in Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph pass through on their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem. They stop at the inn at the entrance to the city, but there is no room. Mary is pregnant and, as labor begins, they head to a cave on a nearby hillside, where Jesus is born. In the pastures outside the city, a group of seven shepherds watch their flocks. Angels announce the Christ's birth. The shepherds hurry towards the city and enter the cave on the hillside to worship the Christ. They spread the news of the Christ's birth and many come to see him.
The Magi arrive in Jerusalem and inquire for news of the Christ. Herod the Great is angry to hear of another king challenging his rule and asks the Sanhedrin to find information for him. The Sanhedrin deliver a prophecy written by Micah, telling of a ruler to come from Bethlehem Ephrathah, which they interpret to signify the Christ's birthplace.
Biblical references: Luke 2:51-52
Judah Ben-Hur, son of Ithamar, is a prince descended from a royal family of Judaea. Messala, his closest childhood friend and the son of a Roman tax-collector, leaves home for five years of education in Rome. He returns as a proud Roman. He mocks Judah and his religion and the two become enemies. As a result, Judah decides to go to Rome for military training in order to use his acquired skills to fight the Roman Empire.
Valerius Gratus, the fourth Roman prefect of Judaea, passes by Judah's house. As Judah watches the procession from his rooftop, a loose roof tile happens to fall and hit the governor. Messala betrays Judah, who is quickly captured and accused of attempting to murder Gratus. There is no trial; Judah's entire family is secretly imprisoned in the Antonia Fortress and all their property is seized. As he is taken away, Judah vows vengeance against the Romans. He is sent as a slave to work aboard a Roman warship. On the journey to the ship, he meets a young carpenter named Jesus, who offers him water, which deeply moves Judah and strengthens his resolve to survive.
In Italy, Greek pirate-ships have been looting Roman vessels in the Aegean Sea. The prefect Sejanus orders the Roman Quintus Arrius to take warships to combat the pirates. Chained on one of the warships, Judah has survived three hard years as a Roman slave, kept alive by his passion for vengeance. Arrius is impressed by Judah and decides to question him about his life and his story. He is stunned to learn of Judah's former status as a son of Hur. In battle, the ship is damaged and starts to sink. Arrius unlocks Judah's chains so he has a chance to survive, and Judah ends up saving the Roman from drowning. They share a plank as a makeshift raft until being rescued by a Roman ship, whereupon they learn that the Romans were victorious in the battle; Arrius is lauded as a hero. They return to Misenum, where Arrius adopts Judah as his son, making him a freedman and a Roman citizen.
Judah Ben-Hur trains in wrestling for five years in the Palaestra in Rome before becoming the heir of Arrius after his death. While traveling to Antioch on state business, Judah learns that his real father's chief servant, the slave Simonides, lives in a house in this city, and has the trust of Judah's father's possessions, which he has invested so well that he is now wealthy. Judah visits Simonides, who listens to his story but demands more proof of his identity. Ben-Hur says he has no proof, but asks if Simonides knows of the fate of Judah's mother and sister. He says he knows nothing and Judah leaves the house. Simonides sends his servant Malluch to spy on Judah to see if his story is true and to learn more about him. Shortly afterwards, Malluch meets and befriends Judah in the Grove of Daphne, and they go to the games stadium together. There, Ben-Hur finds his old rival Messala racing one of the chariots, preparing for a tournament.
The Sheik Ilderim announces that he is looking for a chariot driver to race his team in the coming tournament. Judah, wanting revenge, offers to drive the sheik's chariot, as he intends to defeat Messala. Balthasar and his daughter Iras are sitting at a fountain in the stadium. Messala's chariot nearly hits them but Judah intervenes. Balthasar thanks Ben-Hur and presents him with a gift. Judah heads to Sheik Ilderim's tent. The servant Malluch accompanies him, and they talk about the Christ; Malluch relates Balthasar's story of the Magi. They realize that Judah saved the man who saw the Christ soon after his birth.
Simonides, his daughter Esther, and Malluch talk together, and conclude that Judah is who he claims to be, and that he is on their side in the fight against Rome. Messala realizes that Judah Ben-Hur has been adopted into a Roman home and his honor has been restored. He threatens to take revenge. Meanwhile, Balthasar and his daughter Iras arrive at the Sheik's tent. With Judah they discuss how the Christ, approaching the age of thirty, is ready to enter public leadership. Judah takes increasing interest in the beautiful Iras.
Messala sends a letter to Valerius Gratus about his discovery of Judah, but Sheik Ilderim intercepts the letter and shares it with Judah. He discovers that his mother and sister were imprisoned in a cell at the Antonia Fortress, and Messala has been spying on him. Meanwhile, Ilderim is deeply impressed with Judah's skills with his racing horses, and accepts him as his charioteer.
Simonides comes to Judah and offers him the accumulated fortune of the Hur family business, of which the merchant has been steward. Judah Ben-Hur accepts only the original amount of money, leaving property and the rest to the loyal merchant. They each agree to do their part to fight for the Christ, whom they believe to be a political savior from Roman authority.
A day before the race, Ilderim prepares his horses. Judah appoints Malluch to organize his support campaign for him. Meanwhile, Messala organizes his own huge campaign, revealing Judah Ben-Hur's former identity to the community as an outcast and convict. Malluch challenges Messala and his cronies to a large wager, which, if the Roman loses, would bankrupt him.
The day of the race comes. During the race, Messala and Judah become the clear leaders. Judah deliberately scrapes his chariot wheel against Messala's and Messala's chariot breaks apart, causing him to be trampled by other racers' horses. Judah is crowned the winner and showered with prizes, claiming his first strike against Rome. Messala is left with a broken body and the loss of his wealth.
After the race, Judah Ben-Hur receives a letter from Iras asking him to go to the Roman palace of Idernee. When he arrives, he sees that he has been tricked. Thord, a Saxon, hired by Messala, comes to kill Judah. They duel, and Ben-Hur offers Thord four thousand sestertii to let him live. Thord returns to Messala claiming to have killed Judah, so collects money from them both. Supposedly dead, Judah Ben-Hur goes to the desert with Ilderim to plan a secret campaign.
For Ben-Hur, Simonides bribes Sejanus to remove the prefect Valerius Gratus from his post, who is succeeded by Pontius Pilate. Ben-Hur sets out for Jerusalem to find his mother and sister. Pilate's review of the prison records reveals great injustice, and he notes Gratus concealed a walled-up cell. Pilate's troops reopen the cell to find two women, Judah's long-lost mother and sister, suffering from leprosy. Pilate releases them, and they go to the old Hur house, which is vacant. Finding Judah asleep on the steps, they give thanks to God that he is alive, but do not wake him. As lepers, they are considered less than human. Banished from the city, they leave in the morning.
Amrah, the Egyptian maid who once served the Hur house, discovers Ben-Hur and wakes him. She reveals that she has stayed in the Hur house for all these years. Keeping touch with Simonides, she discouraged many potential buyers of the house by acting as a ghost. They pledge to find out more about the lost family. Judah discovers an official Roman report about the release of two leprous women. Amrah hears rumors of the mother and sister's fate.
Romans make plans to use funds from the corban treasury, of the Temple in Jerusalem, to build a new aqueduct. The Jewish people petition Pilate to veto the plan. Pilate sends his soldiers in disguise to mingle with the crowd, who at an appointed time, begin to massacre the protesters. Judah kills a Roman guard in a duel, and becomes a hero in the eyes of a group of Galilean protesters.
Biblical references: John 1:29-34
At a meeting in Bethany, Ben-Hur and his Galilean followers organize a resistance force to revolt against Rome. Gaining help from Simonides and Ilderim, he sets up a training base in Ilderim's territory in the desert. After some time, Malluch writes announcing the appearance of a prophet believed to be a herald for the Christ. Judah journeys to the Jordan to see the Prophet, meeting Balthasar and Iras traveling for the same purpose. They reach Bethabara, where a group has gathered to hear John the Baptist preach. A man walks up to John, and asks to be baptized. Judah recognizes Him as the man who gave him water at the well in Nazareth many years before. Balthasar worships Him as the Christ.
Biblical references: Matthew 27:48-51, Mark 11:9-11, 14:51-52, Luke 23:26-46, John 12:12-18, 18:2-19:30
During the next three years, that Man, Jesus, preaches his gospel around Galilee, and Ben-Hur becomes one of his followers. He notices that Jesus chooses fishermen, farmers, and similar people, considered "lowly", as apostles. Judah has seen Jesus perform miracles, and is now convinced that the Christ really had come.
During this time, Malluch has bought the old Hur house and renovated it. He invites Simonides and Balthasar, with their daughters, to live in the house with him. Judah Ben-Hur seldom visits, but the day before Jesus plans to enter Jerusalem and proclaim himself, Judah returns. He tells all who are in the house of what he has learned while following Jesus. Amrah realizes that Judah's mother and sister could be healed, and brings them from a cave where they are living. The next day, the three await Jesus by the side of a road and seek his healing. Amidst the celebration of his Triumphal Entry, Jesus heals the women. When they are cured, they reunite with Judah.
Several days later, Iras talks with Judah, saying he has trusted in a false hope, for Jesus had not started the expected revolution. She says that it is all over between them, saying she loves Messala. Ben-Hur remembers the "invitation of Iras" that led to the incident with Thord, and accuses Iras of betraying him. That night, he resolves to go to Esther.
While lost in thought, he notices a parade in the street and falls in with it. He notices that Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus' disciples, is leading the parade, and many of the temple priests and Roman soldiers are marching together. They go to the olive grove of Gethsemane, and he sees Jesus walking out to meet the crowd. Understanding the betrayal, Ben-Hur is spotted by a priest who tries to take him into custody; he breaks away and flees. When morning comes, Ben-Hur learns that the Jewish priests have tried Jesus before Pilate. Although originally acquitted, Jesus has been sentenced to crucifixion at the crowd's demand. Ben-Hur is shocked at how his supporters have deserted Christ in his time of need. They head to Calvary, and Ben-Hur resigns himself to watch the crucifixion of Jesus. The sky darkens. Ben-Hur offers Jesus wine vinegar to return Jesus' favor to him, and soon after that Jesus utters his last cry.
Judah and his friends commit their lives to Jesus, realizing He was not an earthly king, but a heavenly King and a Savior of mankind.
Five years after the crucifixion, Ben-Hur and Esther have married and had children. The family lives in Misenum. Iras visits Esther and tells her she has killed Messala, discovering that the Romans were brutes. She also implies that she will attempt suicide. After Esther tells Ben-Hur of the visit, he tries unsuccessfully to find Iras. A Samaritan uprising in Judaea is harshly suppressed by Pontius Pilate, and he is ordered back to Rome a decade after authorizing the crucifixion of Jesus.
In the tenth year of Emperor Nero's reign, Ben-Hur is staying with Simonides, whose business has been extremely successful. With Ben-Hur, the two men have given most of the fortunes to the church of Antioch. Now, as an old man, Simonides has sold all his ships but one, and that one has returned for probably its final voyage. Learning that the Christians in Rome are suffering at the hands of Emperor Nero, Ben-Hur and his friends decide to help. Ben-Hur, Esther and Malluch sail to Rome, where they decided to build an underground church. It will survive through the ages and comes to be known as the Catacomb of Callixtus.
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