Ben-Hur (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]

Overview


Bestseller Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880) combines the romance, melodrama, and spiritual piety common in the sentimental novels of the nineteenth century with the action, adventure, and intrigue found in the more lurid tales of the day. The story takes its Jewish hero, Judah Ben-Hur, across the Roman Empire of the first century, initially on a quest for revenge against the Roman childhood friend who betrayed him and then finally on a ...
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Ben-Hur (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview


Bestseller Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880) combines the romance, melodrama, and spiritual piety common in the sentimental novels of the nineteenth century with the action, adventure, and intrigue found in the more lurid tales of the day. The story takes its Jewish hero, Judah Ben-Hur, across the Roman Empire of the first century, initially on a quest for revenge against the Roman childhood friend who betrayed him and then finally on a more spiritual quest to understand the nature of the new teacher Jesus Christ.

Lew Wallace said that he wrote Ben-Hur as a way of sorting out his own beliefs concerning God and Christ. In the process, he inspired the faith of millions of readers, prompting many clergy of the day to reverse their churches' long-held opposition to novels and actually encourage their congregations to read Ben-Hur.
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Product Details

Meet the Author


Lew Wallace (1827-1905) lived a life that was perhaps as fascinating as that of his famous literary creation. Wallace became a lawyer, was elected to the Indiana state senate, and rose to the rank of major-general in the Union army during the Civil War. After the war, he went on a secret mission to Mexico in support of President Benito Juárez. Later, he was appointed governor of territorial New Mexico, where he was able to convince Billy the Kid to testify against other outlaws. He was even appointed minister to the Sultan of Turkey by President James Garfield, a fan of the author's writing.
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Introduction

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880) combines the romance, melodrama, and spiritual piety common in the sentimental novels of the nineteenth century with the action, adventure, and intrigue found in the more lurid tales of the day. The story takes its Jewish hero, Judah Ben-Hur, across the Roman Empire of the first century, initially on a quest for revenge against the Roman childhood friend who betrayed him and then on a more spiritual quest to understand the nature of the new teacher Jesus Christ. The author, Lew Wallace, said that he wrote Ben-Hur as a way of sorting out his own beliefs concerning God and Christ. In the process, he inspired the faith of millions of readers, prompting many clergy of the day to reverse their churches' long-held opposition to novels and actually encourage their congregations to read Ben-Hur. As a result, Ben-Hur became one of the bestselling novels of all time.

Lew Wallace (1827-1905) lived a life that was perhaps as fascinating as that of his famous literary creation. Born in Indiana in 1827, Wallace became a lawyer in Indianapolis, was elected to the Indiana state senate in 1856, and rose to the rank of major-general in the Union army during the Civil War. After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Wallace was appointed by Andrew Johnson to a special military commission convened to try eight prisoners charged with conspiring with John Wilkes Booth. After the war, Wallace went on a secret mission to Mexico in support of President Benito Juárez. His experiences in Mexico inspired his first novel, The Fair God (1873), which tells the story of Herman Cortez's conquest of the Aztec Empire. Wallacewas appointed governor of territorial New Mexico (1878-1881), where he was able to convince Billy the Kid to testify against other range-war outlaws. President James Garfield wrote Wallace a letter thanking him for the pleasure that reading Ben-Hur brought to him, and he appointed Wallace minister to the Sultan in the imperial palace of Turkey, where he served from 1881 to 1885. Garfield sent Wallace off with a charge to write another novel, this one set in Constantinople, and the eventual result was Wallace's The Prince of India (1893). At the time of his death, Wallace was working on his autobiography and had written about his life up to 1864. His wife, Susan E. Wallace, drew on letters and her own memories to complete his story, published posthumously in two volumes as Lew Wallace: An Autobiography (1906).

Of all his accomplishments, writing Ben-Hur (1880) brought Wallace the greatest renown. In an article in The Youth's Companion as well as in letters included in his autobiography, Wallace gave his own account of what inspired him to write Ben-Hur. Although Wallace was not a member of any church or religious organization, he had always been fascinated by the story of the magi in Matthew's gospel. He planned to write a story about the magi, and that story became the core of Book I of Ben-Hur. But a fateful encounter with "the great agnostic" Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll on September 19, 1876, changed the scope of Wallace's novel. Ingersoll, a fellow veteran of the battle of Shiloh, was a famous speaker on issues of war and politics and was well known for his eloquent and witty attacks on the divinity of Christ. At that time, Wallace wrote, he "had no convictions about God or Christ. I neither believed nor disbelieved them." But when he heard Ingersoll discuss "such elemental points as God, heaven, life hereafter, Jesus Christ and His divinity," Wallace was ashamed of his ignorance on the subject and committed himself to explore the issues involved.

"How should I conduct the study?" Wallace asked. "Delve into theology? I shuddered. The theology of professors had always seemed to me an indefinitely deep pit filled with the bones of unprofitable speculations." Instead, Wallace plotted out a unique approach to his theological inquiry. He would read the Bible for himself and rely on his skills and knowledge as a lawyer to help him. He would then work out his convictions in the process of researching a novel set in the time and place in which Jesus lived.

While on his own personal spiritual quest, Wallace was also aware that if his book was to be popular he could not preach at the reader. He determined that there "was to be no sermonizing. How could this be done without giving mortal offence? How, and leave the book with a shred of popularity?"

Wallace's solution was to create a Jewish hero, Judah Ben-Hur, and invent a sweeping story of family, romance, and revenge that took Ben-Hur across the Roman Empire of the first century. Ben-Hur actually enters into the gospel stories in the roles of a couple of unnamed biblical characters, including the mysterious young man at the scene of Jesus' arrest who runs away naked (Mark 14:51-52) and the Roman soldier who impulsively offers Jesus a drink on a sponge (Matthew 27:48).

For a novel that has the alternate title, A Tale of the Christ, however, Jesus himself does not appear very often. Wallace recognized that the American public of his time would not accept Jesus as a character in his fictional novel:
The Christian world would not tolerate a novel with Jesus Christ its hero, and I knew it. Nevertheless, writing of Him was imperative, and He must appear, speak, and act. Further, and worse as a tribulation, I was required to keep Him before the reader, the object of superior interest throughout.
By having Jesus absent from the action for most of the novel, Wallace steered clear of the pitfalls that many writers and filmmakers have faced because he was able to avoid filling gaps in Jesus' story that the gospel writers themselves left open. Every word that Jesus speaks in the novel, for example, comes as a direct quote of Jesus' words in the Authorized Version of one of the four biblical gospels, though sometimes they are placed in a different context.

Even without being a part of the action, Jesus is a central figure in the plot of Ben-Hur. In Book I, the three magi seek the baby who is "The King Who Is to Come." Much of the latter part of the novel involves the Egyptian magus, Belthasar, and Jewish prince Ben-Hur's search for the adult Jesus.

Ben-Hur, like the novel's author, becomes a gifted young military leader of a secret army. He plans to use the army to overthrow Roman rule over Israel and install Jesus as the king. At the end of the story, Ben-Hur becomes torn between understanding Christ as an earthly political king or as a spiritual Savior.

According to Wallace, his religious exercise in research and writing was fruitful. He reported, "Long before I was through with my book, I became a believer in God and Christ."

Ben-Hur not only affected Wallace's personal spiritual life, however. It also had a dramatic effect on American popular culture as a whole. Conservative Protestants had long frowned upon the practice of reading fiction, "on the grounds that it was not true and therefore violated divine providence, that it corrupted readers with the false values of lurid romance, and that indulgence in fiction was the sort of idleness wherein the devil found work." But when the evangelistic effect of Ben-Hur's message of faith in Christ quickly became evident, clergy not only permitted but also encouraged people to read it. As a result, the initial editions sold over a million copies, making Ben-Hur the most widely read novel of the nineteenth century. It was the bestselling novel of all time until Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind was published in 1936.

Ben-Hur's great popularity and presence on numerous readers' surveys of the best American literature have frustrated many literary critics through the years. They point toward its somewhat stilted characters and dialogue, the unlikely coincidences that help drive elements of the plot, the lengthy and sometimes tedious descriptions of setting, and its technique of addressing the reader directly. But other critics note that the novel grips the reader's attention with a well-structured and exciting story of revenge, romance, riches, and miracles. They observe that the pace of the novel picks up after a slow start and holds contemporary readers' attention much more than the vast majority of nineteenth-century sentimental novels.

Two features of Wallace's writing style that will strike contemporary readers are the lengthy, rich descriptions he provides of the setting of the action and his repeated explicit commentary in which the narrator addresses the reader directly. Book I, Chapter VII, for example, begins "Let us take our stand by the gate, just out of the edge of the currents - one flowing in, the other out - and use our eyes and ears awhile." Sometimes the better part of a chapter is devoted to setting the scene by describing the sights, sounds, and odors a character might experience upon entering a town. These descriptions came as the result of Wallace's extensive research. Wallace reported that he spent seven years writing the novel, with most of that time spent on research. He read many books on the ancient world, including Flavius Josephus' The Antiquities of the Jews and Edward Gibbon's Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Recognized as one of the first American military leaders to use topographical maps, Wallace got topographical maps of the Holy Land from Germany and traveled to Washington and Boston to use their libraries to determine the mechanical arrangement of the oars in the interior of the trireme for the chapters in which Ben-Hur is a galley slave on a Roman ship.

Since Ben-Hur is known as a spiritual novel, many readers are surprised at the prominent theme of vengeance. The words "vengeance" and "hate" are used many times in the novel in connection with the strength and determination of Ben-Hur's character and in admiration for his life-consuming desire to get righteous revenge on the one who betrayed him. A wise sheik, upon hearing Ben-Hur's tale of betrayal, says that his motive for revenge is "great enough to make hate holy." The faithful Jew Simonides explains to his daughter at length the virtues of vengeance. Ben-Hur himself says, "Vengeance is permitted by the law," and "[r]evenge is a Jew's of right; it is the law." Those who have viewed the 1959 film version of the famous chariot race may be shocked at the novel's version in which a ruthless Ben-Hur plots to exact a lethal revenge on his childhood friend.

Some readers assume that Ben-Hur is converted from his desire for vengeance when he accepts Christ as Savior. But at that point in the story Ben-Hur's revenge is complete. Nowhere in the novel is there a retraction of his desire for revenge or repentance for it. The novel is consistent in its view, expressed in its implicit and explicit commentary right through the epilogue, that vengeance is allowable and is even a virtue. Ben-Hur's conversion is not from seeking vengeance, but from the desire to take up arms to set up Jesus as an earthly king.

Alongside the novel's admiration for Ben-Hur's decisive violent act of vengeance, Ben-Hur also commends the virtues of meekness and servitude. In his autobiography, Wallace's wife recounts that she wrote to Wallace that "there is nothing in [the] last chapters to relieve the meekness with which Christ went to the cross." Wallace received this not as a critique, but as a good observation "since that was exactly what I sought to give in description." And while the noble Judah Ben-Hur is enraged at the indignity of being enslaved, the former Union general Wallace depicts several key characters who have lived as servants refusing the opportunity for freedom in order to remain faithful servants of their masters.

The virtuous women in the novel are especially passive and subservient. Wallace apparently gave a good deal of thought to "the Woman Question" of his day. Should women be allowed to vote, receive higher education, and enter business and politics the same as men, or are they happier and better suited staying in domestic roles? Wallace's answer may be evident in the ultimate romantic choice Ben-Hur makes between an ambitious Egyptian noblewoman and a humble Jewish servant girl.

Still, just as the novel appealed to both the female readers of nineteenth-century sentimental novels and the male readers of more lurid action-adventure stories, Ben-Hur elevates virtues that at the time were seen as female and male. A virtuous man apparently is one who can be in touch with his feminine side. Upon hearing devastating news about his mother and sister, Ben-Hur cries "tears that he would not have them see, because he was a man." Ben-Hur is struck when he sees "[t]he tearful woman-like face of the Christ," and in the garden he sees that Jesus' "countenance was all gentleness and pity."

Faith is another central theme of the novel. In the late nineteenth century, when science and history were posing academic challenges to traditional faith, Ben-Hur celebrated the virtue of intuitive faith based on the feelings of one's heart. Wise characters in the novel hear about Jesus and make great leaps of faith. Men drop everything to follow John the Baptist based on a cryptic prophesy, and a woman allows herself to be infected with leprosy because she trusts that Jesus can and will heal her and her friends.

Readers today may take exception to the novel's implication that Christianity is the logical fulfillment of other religions, but nineteenth-century Christian readers would have found it to be quite ecumenical in its perspective. The 1880s and 1890s were a time of rising prejudice in America, and Wallace may have drawn on his experiences as governor of New Mexico, where he worked with the local white ranchers, the native Mexicans, and the Apache Indians, to infuse his novel with an appreciation for various cultures. It was in part due to the cultural sensitivity that Garfield saw in Ben-Hur that he thought Wallace would make a good foreign minister. Wallace's novel introduced readers to other cultures and faiths and for the most part treated them with respect. The three magi, Belthasar the Arab, Gaspar the Athenian, and Melchior "the Hindoo," all draw upon their own faith traditions to reason the existence of one God and the need for an incarnate Savior. Many Jewish readers enjoyed the novel, overlooking the confession of Jesus as the Christ and focusing on its Jewish hero and the way the novel treated their faith and heritage with proper reverence. In explicit commentary to the reader, the narrator suggests that "gradually we attain the truth that every creed is illustrated by good men who are entitled to our respect, but whom we cannot respect without courtesy to their creed."

Wallace's wife noted that at the time of his death, "[h]e had in mind the outline of a new novel in which the Prince of India should go from Constantinople to the courts of Spain, and sail with Columbus in search of a new world, there to find the end of controversy, to try the universal brotherhood of man, and found the religion of the one God." On February 15, 1905, the quest for spiritual truth that compelled Wallace to write Ben-Hur came to an end. He died at his home in Crawfordsville, Indiana, where he was surrounded by his wife, children, and grandchildren. His wife closed his autobiography, writing "[h]e has found the New World, the universal religion, the One God."

Lew Wallace lived a full life, but Ben-Hur is still his most far-reaching legacy. The book not only helped wipe away the lingering American resistance to the novel, but also was instrumental in introducing Christian audiences to the theater and film.

Wallace initially resisted efforts to adapt the story for the theater because he was concerned with how Christ would be portrayed on stage. Producers A. L. Klaw and Marc Erlanger hit upon the approach of using a shaft of intense white light to portray Christ, to which Wallace gave his consent. The 1899 production, adapted for the stage by William Young, featured real chariots pulled by live horses running on huge treadmills with an enormous rolling canvas backdrop behind them. The play was a phenomenal success: It played over 6,000 times, was seen by over twenty million people, and grossed ten million dollars. Instead of warning their congregations against the evils of the theater, clergy such as the famous evangelist Billy Sunday urged Christians and seekers to go see Ben-Hur and perhaps unwittingly introduced a new mass audience to the pleasures of attending the theater.

The earliest film adaptation of Ben-Hur did not have as wide an audience as the play, but it did play a significant role in the history of motion pictures. In 1907, just two years after Wallace's death, a fifteen-minute-long, one-reel silent film depicting highlights of Ben-Hur was produced without the family's permission. The Wallace family sued for copyright infringement and won the case, heard by the Supreme Court, that set the precedent for authors to retain the rights to their work in the new medium of film.

In 1926, a newly formed film company, Metro Goldwyn-Mayer, invested a then-record four million dollars into its production of Ben-Hur, which became the most spectacular epic of the silent film era. The film was re-released in 1931 with sound effects and became one of the most successful films of its time.

The famous 1959 version of Ben-Hur, directed by William Wyler and starring Charleton Heston, was a hit with both audiences and critics. The film brought many religious people into movie theaters for the first time, and at the Academy Awards the film was awarded eleven Oscars, a record matched only by Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Ben-Hur was able to draw the previously resistant Christian community into reading novels, attending theater, and watching films. As a result Wallace's entertaining tale of love, revenge, and faith has arguably had a greater effect on American popular culture than any other work of fiction.

Russell W. Dalton is Associate Professor of Christian Education at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. He speaks across the country on issues of faith and popular culture and is the author of Faith Journey through Fantasy Lands: A Christian Dialogue with Harry Potter, Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 108 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 108 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2000

    A once in a lifetime read!!

    I decided to read only well-written and important works during this Millenial Year. I picked up the 'Focus on the Family' publication of Ben Hur as I was exiting our library. I did not know I had just picked up the novel of my life. This book is suplative in every way-wonderful plot, incredible characterizations, historically accurate, and even life changing. General Lew Wallace wrote this incredible work in 1880, and I don't believe this novel could be written by today's writers. There are some of the most perfectly written sentences I have ever read, every line comparable to fine wine that must be sipped slowly for best effect rather than gulped like present-day works. It took me a full month of pleasure to finish this fine work. It can be enjoyed by Christian and non-Christian alike, and will cause those who believe to believe even stronger, while those unfamiliar or doubtful of the Good News of Christ will be quickened spiritually. This book is gigantic in scope and life changing in effect. By the way, I've never seen the movie, but I'm going to check it tonight>>>

    20 out of 21 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 14, 2011

    A truly uplifting book!

    I loved this book from beginning to end! It is much better than the movie version!

    12 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 15, 2012

    It's good.

    Reading the book has filled in the movie. I really appreciated the author's use of language and sentence structure.

    9 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 14, 2011

    Great book

    What can one say about a book that is a classic. (Nothing)

    6 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 18, 2012

    Typo city

    If you want a good version and an inexpensive one buy christian classics for 99cent it has a great copy of ben hur and it also has many other christian classics. Way more bang for the buck and it is easily read

    5 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2013

    HARD TO READ

    THE BOOK IS FULL OF MISSPELLED WORDS AND WEIRD SYMBOLS THAT HAVE NO MEANING WHAT SO EVER.IT IS HARD TO GET THE FULL MEANING OF THE BOOK. WOULD NOT RECOMMEND ANYONE READ THIS PARTICULAR BOOK.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 8, 2012

    Highly Recommended

    Excellent book!

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 24, 2012

    Better Then the Movie

    Though the movie Ben Hur is good the book is even better

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2012

    I highly Recommended

    is gret

    3 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 16, 2014

    Grat Great Story

    Although I loved the story, the description at some points seemed too heavy and I started skimming over certain parts. Also there are many errors in the text and it was very difficult to read. But overall a great story that I would recommend:)

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2013

    Wow!

    Read it a long time a go, but this time I appreciated it more. So beautiful!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 14, 2012

    To the story of Ben

    I couldn't really understand it at almost of the words were spelt wrong.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2012

    A Classic Always

    I had seen the movie several times, but reading the book puts nuances to the journey and events that the movie just couldn't portray. Wallace has made a classic with religious theme that will be ever a rewarding read.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2014

    Raven

    Leaves

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2014

    Layla

    Layla wandered in.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2014

    Benjamina

    "I'm here."

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2014

    Hailey

    "Uh.. guys?"

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2013

    Sandclan

    Interested? Go to bulb res 1 #Sweetfur#

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 9, 2013

    Good story but painfully slow

    I got this book as a free nook book. It's a "classic" so I figured, "why not?" This book is way beyond overly-descriptive. I found myself actually talking to my book, "I don't really care what the camels are wearing! Get on with it!" The main character of the story isn't even mentioned until page 62 of 435. It took me about 2-3 weeks of forcing myself to read this. If it had been written in 100 pages it probably would have been tolerable. Save yourself some time and watch the old movie version starring Charlton Heston.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2013

    My friend's great great grandfather wrote this book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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