Ben-Hur Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 58-page guide for “Ben-Hur” by Lew Wallace includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 80 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Meaning of Christ in Christianity and Vengeance and Mercy.
A classic story of redemption and forgiveness, Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is one of the most influential Christian novels of the 19th century, as it tells the stories of 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. 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 Roman governor, Valerius Gratus. Sent to the galleys as punishment, his mother and sister, Tirzah, 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 that of the Biblical Jesus, compassion overrides Ben-Hur’s 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 Jesus’ story. The novel 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.
Ben-Hur is born roughly at the same time as Christ, but the reader first encounters Ben-Hur when he is about 15 or 16 years old. Ben-Hur is meeting an old friend of his, Messala, who has been away in Rome for the past five years. Messala is a Roman by birth and has become cruel and arrogant in his time away, mocking Ben-Hur’s country and religion, and Ben-Hur rejects him. When an accident makes it appear as though Ben-Hur has attacked Gratus, Messala confirms Ben-Hur’s (false) guilt, destroying Ben-Hur’s family. Condemned to die as a galley slave, Ben-Hur is freed after three years when he saves the life of a Roman military commander named Quintus Arrius. He becomes Arrius’ adopted son and heir, spending the next five years in Rome where he learns the Roman arts of war.
Once Arrius has died, Ben-Hur leaves Rome and travels to Antioch where he is to take service under the Roman general, Consul Maxentius. Ben-Hur hears of a successful merchant in Antioch named Simonides whom he believes is one of his father’s former slaves. He goes to see Simonides, but the merchant will not acknowledge Ben-Hur without proof. Simonides assigns a servant, Malluch, to befriend Ben-Hur and observe him. Malluch reports back to Simonides that the man calling himself Ben-Hur is brave and pious, and Simonides eventually recognizes Ben-Hur as the son of his master.
While in Antioch, Ben-Hur hatches a scheme to take revenge on Messala, who is also in the city. Messala will be participating in a major chariot race, so Ben-Hur befriends Ilderim, an Arab sheik, who is seeking a driver for his chariot team. Ben-Hur proves himself a remarkable driver and is given Ilderim’s team for the race. In the final turn of the race, Ben-Hur clips Messala’s chariot so that it tumbles out of control. Messala is crippled by the accident and left destitute by the wagers he made on himself.
In Ilderim’s encampment outside of Antioch, Ben-Hur meets Balthasar, the wise man from Egypt. Balthasar challenges Ben-Hur’s understanding of the Messiah, arguing that the Messiah’s mission must be spiritual in nature and meant for all mankind, not just the Jews. Ben-Hur struggles with this concept throughout the novel before accepting Balthasar’s interpretation as he witnesses the Crucifixion. Ben-Hur also meets Balthasar’s daughter, Iras, who flirts and acts coquettish with Ben-Hur. Iras’ wiles do entice Ben-Hur despite the nagging thoughts in his mind for Esther, Simonides’ daughter.
With Messala ruined, Ben-Hur leaves for Jerusalem in hopes of finding his mother and sister. They have been sealed away in a secret cell infected with leprosy. They are freed by Judea’s new Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, shortly before Ben-Hur’s arrival in the city but, as lepers, must leave the city and reside in a leper colony outside the gates. Ben-Hur is kept in ignorance about the fate of his family for several years while he trains fighters in Galilee and follows Jesus in his ministry. As the time approaches for Jesus to come to Jerusalem and announce himself as the Messiah, Ben-Hur visits Jerusalem and tells people about the miracles he has witnessed Christ perform. Amrah, the Hurs’ slave, overhears him and rushes to tell Ben-Hur’s mother and sister. The three women hurry to where they hope Jesus will pass on his way to the city. When Christ passes them, he cures the two women of their leprosy. Ben-Hur is among the crowd following Christ, and the family is tearfully reunited.
Ben-Hur returns to his family estate that evening where he has a confrontation with Iras. Having seen Jesus in the flesh, Iras is scornful of him. She has expected the “King of the Jews” to be dressed in grand finery and possess a commanding presence. Seeing that service to this Messiah provides no path to earthly wealth, Iras dismisses both him and Ben-Hur as useless. When she pleads on behalf of the crippled Messala, begging that Ben-Hur forgive him the debt from their wager, it emerges that she has secretly been working on Messala’s half the entire time, and Ben-Hur firmly escorts her out. After his confrontation with Iras, Ben-Hur steps out into the festival crowd—the city is crowded for Passover—and spots a procession of Temple priests and Roman soldiers with one of Jesus’ disciples, Judas, among them. Ben-Hur follows the procession out of the city to the grove where Jesus and his apostles are staying. Jesus is arrested by the soldiers and deserted by his apostles.
Ben-Hur is woken early the next morning by his officers because Jesus has already been scheduled for execution that day. As Ben-Hur watches Christ’s torturous execution, he comes to realize that Balthasar’s predictions about the nature of the Messiah were correct, namely that he has come to spiritually redeem mankind and not to overthrow Rome and establish a new empire with its center at Jerusalem. Upon Christ’s death, it becomes clear to Ben-Hur that Christ is in fact the Son of God, and Ben-Hur commits his life to Christianity. Years later, Ben-Hur learns that Christians are being persecuted under the reign of Emperor Nero. Ben-Hur and his wife, Esther, and Malluch sail to Rome, where they build an underground church to last through the ages and provide sanctuary for persecuted Christians.