Ben Hur was an incredibly popular book whose sales in the 19th century were only exceeded by the Bible, and it was filmed six times between 1907 and 2016! The horse and carriage race scene, which is certainly the highlight of the 11-time Oscar-winning film from 1959, is just one of many highlights in the book.
This historical novel surpasses its film adaptations particularly in its depth; the plot of the book really picks up in the second chapter of book part two, and then the pace, tension and events build up to the eighth and last part of the book.
The story follows the development of Ben Hur, a young jew, from the ages of 17 through 30. At the instigation of his childhood friend Messala, a Roman, he is wrongly accused and sentenced to row for life as a slave on a Roman war galley. During a naval battle he saves the fleet commander Quintus Arrius from drowning, is adopted by him and has the chance to receive charioteer and warrior training in Rome, only to return to his homeland immeasurably rich as the heir of his adoptive father.
There, Ben Hur secretly manages to summon three legions of Jewish men because he is planning an uprising to free his homeland of Roman rule. These men expect Jesus to be crowned King of the Jews so that he can free them from the scourge of the Romans.
Jesus, however, wants to free people from their indolent separation from God’s will and their immorality, from their envy and hatred of fellow human beings, from their self-conceit and vanity. He wants to lead people back to God, from whom they allow themselves to be distanced through the dictates of the priests and the false teachings of the scribes.
Unlike most priests, Jesus does not stir up hatred against the Romans. He does not want to become an earthly power or “king” of the Jews. That is why people and “popular opinion” turn away from Jesus, whom they had initially received with cheers of “Hosanna” in Jerusalem. They feel disappointed that their selfish desires have not been fulfilled and shout, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Thus, Ben Hur is faced with the decision of his life, but:
A man may not always tell what he will do until the trial is upon him. This was the emergency for which Ben-Hur had been for years preparing. The man to whose security he had devoted himself, and upon whose life he had been building so largely, was in personal peril; yet he stood still. Such contradictions are there in human nature!
When it comes to freeing the imprisoned Jesus to save him from death on the cross, his men are unwilling to do it because they are disappointed in Jesus. Of Ben Hur’s three Galilean legions only two of the centurions have remained loyal to their cause, while all the others, thousands of men, defected to the priests who hate Jesus. So, Ben Hur is practically alone in his desire to stand by Jesus, but he also feels weak and as the execution cross was raised, the first thought that occurs to him is: “It is God’s will that it must happen.” But then … he hears Jesus, nailed to the cross, saying:
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Words that make it doubtful that this is a crime that God himself planned against his own son. Balthasar, Ben Hur’s spiritual mentor, knows how to correctly classify the event of the murder on the cross:
Oh, it is a dreadful day for the world!
Jesus’s work is one of the three main areas of focus in this book. Then there is Ben Hur’s fight against Messala and the Romans. And the women around Ben Hur: his mother, his younger sister and two young women to whom he feels strongly drawn:
Esther, “blooming in secret”, selfless, quiet and modest, of childlike, pure, delicate beauty, passive in the best sense of the word.
And, Iras, an extremely attractive beauty with a very self-confident demeanor, particularly intelligent. With her appearance, she arouses the curiosity and “interest” of many men. She is active in the bad sense of the word, a woman who spins her web in order to win over the blind lover.
“Iras possesses great cunning, great beauty, but she has no heart” recognizes the experienced Simonides, Ben Hur’s fatherly friend and asset manager. When asked how to warn Ben Hur of this woman, he simply replies:
A man drowning may be saved; not so a man in love.
Which of the women will Ben Hur choose? This is also described realistically throughout the course of the book.
While reading I was faced with the decision of which miracles were possible and which were impossible according to the laws of nature. What is a miracle? Something that causes us to wonder, for example a spontaneous healing. Such miracles still exist today through human beings. But Jesus, through his direct power of God, was able to perform much more powerful miracles.
But when an “eyewitness” reports that wine can be made out of water, then I know that this is not actually a miracle, but rather wishful thinking, fantasy and rumors! Such traditions were written down by those who had heard about Jesus from others who were told by someone who heard it many years after it happened.
There are very few of these false traditions that Lew Wallace has adopted from uncertain sources without verification. But, as a book, Ben Hur has so many strengths that I highly recommend it.
Depicts very well how all priestly classes have always failed because of the presumption that they know better, and therefore lack the simplicity and clarity to recognize any revelation of Truth or the Truth itself because seeing themselves as the constituted authority in all matters religious, they also assumed that they are the supreme custodians and interpreters of the Truth, and when the Truth does come, in all simplicity, as it must always do because this is Its very nature, they in their complicated religious practices cannot recognize It. …
The depiction shows clearly how a people blessed and chosen by the Almighty, and to whom He revealed His Laws through highly called ones, could still be ensnared by the darkness because of the intellectualism of its priestly caste.
I found the language used very good. The juxtaposition of the characters of Iras and Esther very profound, etc., etc. Also interesting, the juxtaposition of Balthasar and Iras. One guided to the manger at the birth and also guided again to witness the crucifixion, yet his only daughter, wholly of the darkness.
Certainly, highly recommended.