Ben-Hur Summary

Lew Wallace


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Ben-Hur Summary

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A classic story of redemption and forgiveness, Ben-Hur (subtitled A Tale of the Christ) is one of the most influential Christian novels of the nineteenth century, as it tells the stories of so many peripheral Biblical figures in addition to that of Jesus himself. From Roman tax collectors and charioteers, to lepers, fishermen, Pharisees, shepherds, John the Baptist and Pontius Pilate, Ben-Hur offers a narrative arc of redemption through piety, a theme cherished by Wallace’s Gilded Age readers. The story traces the life of the fictional main character Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman from Jerusalem whose future is upended when he is falsely accused of attempting to assassinate a Roman governor. Sent to the galleys as punishment, his mother and sister are caught up in his fate, jailed, contract leprosy, and are stripped of their family’s wealth and possessions. As Ben-Hur’s life intersects with the Biblical Jesus’s, compassion overrides his thirst for revenge against the merciless Romans who left his life in ruins.

The narrative is divided into eight books, or parts, each with their own sub-chapters, and the unfolding of Ben-Hur’s story runs parallel to that of Jesus’s. The first book begins with the story of the birth of Jesus as outlined in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke: Three Magi following a bright star come to Nazareth, where Mary and Joseph have stopped on their way to Bethlehem. In labor, and refused from an inn, they resort to a cave in a nearby hillside, surrounded by shepherds watching their flocks. There, Mary gives birth to the baby Jesus, whose arrival is heralded by angels and the visiting Magi from the East.

Following the tradition of Biblical introductions, part two begins by establishing Judah Ben-Hur’s royal lineage as son of Ithamar and a prince descended from the royal family in Judea. Ben-Hur’s childhood best friend, Messala, returns home from five years studying in Rome, and has changed into an arrogant and superior man. He mocks Ben-Hur and his Jewish traditions, and friendship curdles into enmity. Ben-Hur vows to go to Rome, too, to receive military training, but before he can, Messala traps him in a life-changing lie. As the procession of Roman governor Valerius Gratus passes Ben-Hur’s house, a loose roof tile slips and knocks him off of his horse. Messala accuses Ben-Hur of attempted assassination, and his and his whole family’s life collapses with shocking quickness: their wealth and property is seized, his mother and sister are sent to prison, and Ben-Hur himself is consigned to slavery on a Roman warship. As he is dragged away, Ben-Hur promises vengeance against the Romans, but a brief encounter with a benevolent young carpenter named Jesus strengthens his will to survive.

In part three, readers are given a glimpse of a hardened Ben-Hur, fueled by his passion for vengeance for three years as a slave on the Roman warship, then under siege by Greek pirate ships. His superior, a Roman officer named Quintus Arrias, takes note of Judah’s determination, and upon learning of his former status and subsequent fall from grace, he takes pity on him and releases him from his chains so that he has a chance to escape as the ship starts to sink. In yet another show of his strength of character, Ben-Hur rescues Arrias instead of simply saving himself, and the two cling to pieces of wood from the wrecked vessel while they await rescue by the Romans. Upon his rescue, Arrias learns that the Romans came out on top of the battle, is lauded as a hero, and makes Ben-Hur his adoptive son.

After the battle and rescue, Ben-Hur lives for years as Arrias’s son in Rome, and becomes his sole heir. He also learns that his real father’s principal servant, Simonides, inherited his father’s wealth after he was sent to the galleys and his mother and sister were imprisoned, which he has also grown considerably over the years. Without proof of his identity, Simonides is skeptical that Ben-Hur is who he says he is, and sends him away – but not before deciding to send a spy, Malluch, after him to test the veracity of his claims. Becoming friends and going to the stadium to watch the games together, Judah learns that his enemy, Messala, is a charioteer in Rome, and promptly volunteers to drive the Shiek Ilderim’s chariot. His honor restored as son of Roman and a charioteer, Simondes, his daughter Esther, and Malluch all agree that Judah is indeed of the Ben-Hur family. Messala, however, is none too pleased about this development, and continues to dig in his heels in hatred against Ben-Hur. Meanwhile, Jesus, closing in on 30, prepares to begin his public ministry.

As powerful Roman enemies continue to plot against Ben-Hur, the parallels between Ben-Hur’s story and that of Jesus Christ become clear. These similarities have the effect of deepening the reader’s empathy with the relentlessly persecuted Ben-Hur, and more firmly establish his moral fortitude, strength of character, and deservingness of redemption. So, too, do his acts of kindness, which include leaving a substantial sum of money for Simonides after he gestures to give Ben-Hur all of his father’s accumulated wealth. Messala’s attempts to thwart the success of Ben-Hur stop at nothing, and take the form of exposing his whereabouts and restored honor to Valerius Gratus, a public smear campaign revealing his true identity as a convict and former slave, and sending a hired assassin after him, all to no avail. After surviving the final attack through cunning, negotiation, and by offering some money, Ben-Hur starts his own secret campaign against Messala.

Perhaps the height of pathos in Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, book six sees Valerius Gratus removed from his post as a favor to Ben-Hur, and replaced by Pontius Pilate, the tragic figure from the Bible responsible for the eventual crucifixion of Christ. Pontius Pilate’s inherent kindness, setting up the emotional impact of and foreshadowing his conflictedness about the crucifixion, is first established when he roots out the great injustices perpetuated by his forerunner Gratus. Included among these is a walled-up cell containing Ben-Hur’s mother and sister, now suffering deeply from leprosy and considered outcasts from society. Though they are released and return to their now-vacant home to find Judah Ben-Hur asleep on the steps, they simply rejoice and leave town, as they are no longer welcome in society. Ben-Hur obtains an official report of their release, but they are already gone without a trace.

In part seven, John the Baptist baptizes Jesus Christ, whom Ben-Hur recognizes as the kind man who gave him water and encouraged him on his way to the slave ship.  Ben-Hur organizes a resistance against the Roman authorities (including Pontius Pilate), who brutally suppressed protestors against an aqueduct.

The final book, Part Eight, chronicles the three main years of Jesus Christ’s ministry, from the age of 30 to 33, when he is crucified at the hands of Pontius Pilate. Judah Ben-Hur notices and respects that Jesus selects as his followers and apostles poor fishermen, farmers, and other “lowly” types, and that he does not hesitate to heal lepers and other social outcasts. Firmly among his followers, he is a true believer in Jesus’s teachings. Ben-Hur’s life story again intersects with the Biblical account of the Passion of the Christ, including his betrayal by Judas Iscariot and his followers. Though Ben-Hur was powerless to stop the crucifixion on Calvary, he returns Jesus’s act of kindness from years before and offers him a sip of wine just before he takes his last dying breath. Up to that moment simply a follower of the teachings of Christ, upon his death, it becomes clear to Ben-Hur that he is in fact the Son of God. He commits his life to Christianity, and years later, when he learns that Christians are being persecuted under the reign of Emperor Nero, he, his wife (Simonides’ daughter Esther), and Malluch sail to Rome, where they build an underground church to last through the ages and provide sanctuary for persecuted Christians. It comes to be known as the Catacomb of Callixtus.