Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Why Ben-Hur Is an Important Book

First, What is Ben-Hur?

The full title of the book is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Despite including the phrase "A Tale of the Christ" in it's title, Jesus Christ is only in a few chapters. Ben-Hur is mostly a story about the spiritual change in a Jewish prince named Judah Ben-Hur who is betrayed by his adopted Roman brother Messala.  Ben-Hur lived during the same time as Jesus Christ, and their lives cross paths a few times Based on the auto-fills on my Google searches for Ben-Hur, many people seem confused about whether or not Ben-Hur is based on a true story.
Ben-Hur is an entirely fictional person invented by author Lew Wallace in the 1870's. Although, I get why people might be a little confused, because Ben-Hur includes minor characters who are actually in the Bible and greatly expands their narratives. Essentially,  Ben-Hur is biblical fan fiction.

For example Wallace gives the names Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar to the wise men from the east mentioned in Matthew chapter 2. Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar become important characters throughout the book. Balthasar goes on to witness Christ's execution beside Ben-Hur, and Ben-Hur becomes the man mentioned briefly in Matthew 27:48 who offers Jesus wine on a sponge as he hangs on the cross. Pontius Pilate, who infamously washed his hands clean from Jesus's crucifixion sentencing, releases Ben-Hur's mother and sister from prison.

So it's Biblical fiction... does that make it important?  
No, not really. When Ben-Hur was written, biblical fiction was pretty common. Some of the most popular biblical fiction from the 1800's includes Scenes in Judea and The Prince of the House of David. But hardly anyone today has heard of these other biblical fiction books, so what set Ben-Hur apart?


Ben-Hur has had multiple film adaptations including 1907, 1925, 1959 and 2016.  I realize mentioning the film adaptations is tangential to explaining why Ben-Hur is an important book. but I can't pretend the films don't play a huge role in the staying power of the Ben-Hur story. The 1959 re-make especially helped cement the story of Ben-Hur in cinematic history. The 1959 version of the film had the largest budget and the largest sets of any film ever produced at the time. At the 1960 Academy Awards, Ben-Hur swept 11 categories including best picture, best director, best actor and best supporting actor. As of 2016, no film has ever beaten Ben-Hur's 1960 record of 11 Oscars (Titanic and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King have both matched it).  Anyways, the success of the 1959 re-make probably has a lot to do with why you've probably heard of Ben-Hur. But why is the book important?

Bestselling Book of 19th Century 

When it was published, Ben-Hur wasn't just popular. It was REALLY popular. First published in 1880, it surpassed Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin by 1893 to become the #1 selling book of the entire 19th century. The whole world went wild for it. The U.S. President  at the time, James Garfield, wrote a letter to Lew Wallace sharing how much he enjoyed Ben-Hur. "With this beautiful and reverent book you have lightened the burden of my daily life," he wrote. Ben-Hur went on to be the first work of fiction to ever be blessed by Pope Leo XIII. It has been translated into over 40 languages and has never been out of print since 1880. Even if Ben-Hur never sold another copy from this day forward, it would still maintain a prominent place in literary history because of it's status as the bestselling book of a century.  

Why was Ben-Hur so popular?

Good Old Fashioned Storytelling

At the risk of sounding like a 7th grade reading teaching...the elements of fiction in Ben-Hur are FANTABULOUS!  The character development, plot, point of view, theme and setting all come together for a spectacular epic. The plot includes betrayal, revenge, action, profound struggle, intrigue, world travel and a tense love triangle. Based on plot alone, it's not hard to see why Ben-Hur was popular. The point of view is an expansive third person that allows the epic scope of the narrative to include the thoughts, emotions and reflections of many characters as well as some interjection from the narrator. Main themes for Ben-Hur are positive and uplifting and include forgiveness and peace. The character development of Ben-Hur in particular is one for the ages.  Ben-Hur starts off in a position of great privilege. He is ignorant about the suffering of many in his society. Through betrayal and a freak accident, he falls into the lowest position of society as slave sentenced to hard labor.  Expected only to live for another year, Ben-Hur survives three years as an captive propelled forward by an all-consuming desire for revenge. The rest of the story is about (many things, but primarily) Ben-Hur's struggle to let go of the hatred and bitterness that has utterly consumed him.  He struggles to become someone capable of showing generosity, kindness, or forgiveness. Last but not least is the setting. The setting that Lew Wallace presents in Ben-Hur is closely related to why the book blew up into becoming the bestselling book of the century.  

Historical Accuracy in the Time of Darwin 

As mentioned earlier, author Lew Wallace invented most of the major characters and events in Ben-Hur. However, Lew Wallace did not make up the setting. In fact, he painstakingly researched geography, topography, climate, plant life, people, cultures, and economies to provide a hyper-realistic portrayal of the Roman Empire in the time of Christ. 

In 1880 when Ben-Hur was first published, the theory of evolution was still new and sweeping American culture. American Protestantism was especially in a cultural upheaval. Evolution is obviously no longer a new or shocking theory. By 2016 most Christians, in one way or another, have reconciled the theory of evolutionary with their core beliefs, but many Christians in the late 19th Century were still unsure what to make of it all. Perhaps most importantly, at the core of post-Darwin America was a call for scientific evidence to be used in support of belief. In 1880, American Protestants were eager to engage their science-driven culture while still maintaining their religious identity, and along came Ben-Hur.
Lew Wallace was exceptionally methodical in providing his readers with the utmost historical accuracy.  He spent weeks just researching Roman battleships in 5BC in order to accurately describe the life of Ben-Hur as a slave on a Roman Trireme. And when writing about the great chariot race, no detail was overlooked. Wallace researched the construction of various chariot models, how the audience would have been sectioned in the arena, etc. Exact dates and extensive genealogies are given to provide context for events and people. Detailed descriptions of various people groups are provided including Nazarites, Samaritans, Pharisees, Sadducees and Roman soldiers. Most importantly, Wallace is astoundingly precise with his geographic description of ancient Judea. As Wallace explains in his autobiography, "I examined catalogues of books and maps, and sent for everything likely to be useful. I wrote with a chart always before my eyes". He spent weeks researching at the Library of Congress. And so, because of Wallace's zeal for historicity, Ben-Hur provides much more than an interesting story.  Ben-Hur gives readers an accurate understanding of the cultural and historical context in which the life of Christ took place, and this was provided at a time when many Christians desperately wanted to engage with their faith through facts and research. 

In Summary

Why is Ben-Hur an important book?  
  • It's the best-selling book of the 19th Century. 
  • It's a good story with an epic scope 
  • It was a timely cultural response to the issues of belief and science.
If you know of any other reasons, feel free to comment below. 

This is Fantastic! I Want to Go Read Ben-Hur!

Awesome, I hope you do.  Buuuut I should probably mention that it's a massive tome. The unabridged audiobook is over 23 hours long. And there's one element of fiction I haven't mentioned yet: style. Sometimes reading Ben-Hur feels like you're watching a hippopotamus pick up a pea. It's okay to skim through the winding descriptions of setting if that's not your cup of tea. But spend some time reading Ben-Hur and you'll become acquainted with an ancient time and a spiritual place. 

"Riches take wings, comforts vanish, hope withers away, but love stays with us. Love is God"

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