Like pretty well everyone else in the world, I knew Ben Hur was a film. It’s one of the best-known movies of all time, and anyone with an interest in cinema will know about the famous chariot race, and that it won a record 11 Academy Awards. Most will know Charlton Heston won Best Actor for his portrayal of the Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur, and it’s also well-known for being extremely long, clocking in at 3 hours 32 minutes, according to IMDB!

The thing is, I’m not even sure I’ve watched it all! The film is over 60 years old, and I feel that its age and its length are off-putting these days to all but the most enthusiastic of film buffs. So I knew Ben Hur was a film (even if I hadn’t seen it), but I didn’t know it was a book! To be fair, it’s not a secret: General Lew Wallace, author of Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, is credited as the writer on the main poster for the movie. But I don’t recall knowing anything about a book, until the other day I saw it on the shelf at our local Christian bookshop, Oasis Christian Centre in Romsey.

I was surprised to find Ben Hur is a Christian book. Published about 1880 – or 140 years ago – it was Lew Wallace’s second book. The first, The Fair God, was a success, selling 150,000 copies, but Ben Hur was an instant and outright bestseller, with over 2 million copies sold. Wallace saw distinguished service in the US army, reaching the rank of Major-General, served as Governor of New Mexico, and later as US Minister to Turkey.

The main narrative is the rivalry between Ben-Hur and the proud Roman Messala. But their stories are entwined with the story of Jesus, beginning with a highly convincing account of the Magi meeting up in the desert prior to journeying on to Jerusalem. Not sure if a Spoiler Alert is really required for a 19th-century book, but Wallace even has one of the Magi live long enough to be present at the crucifixion. In between, the story touches on the birth of Jesus, a brief meeting when he is a child, and then captures the growing anticipation of the Messiah as reports about John the Baptist begin to circulate.

The coming of the Christ brings much debate about what sort of a King He will be, and what sort of a Kingdom He will institute. Ben-Hur is still furious about his terrible treatment by Messala and the Romans and is looking for an earthly kingdom, with the Romans vanquished and the Jews in charge. But in his friendship and discussions with Balthasar, one of the Magi, and eventually when he meets Jesus for himself, he comes to understand that His is a heavenly kingdom, and his military skill and private militia won’t be needed!

Why am I writing about this little-known book? Although fiction, Ben Hur is, as the subtitle says, “A Tale of the Christ”. Written with considerable knowledge of the history, geography and culture of the time, this book gave me a fresh perspective on Jesus’ life and ministry. In particular the book shows a little of how Jesus might have impacted some of the people around Him – whether wise men, soldiers, lepers, zealots, or just ordinary people. And the more we know Jesus, the better we are able to worship Him.

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