Book Review: Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace (Five Stars)

Book Review: Ben-Hur; A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace

Five Stars

“A man is never so on trial as in the moment of excessive good fortune.”

Read the book. Many people argue about the relative merits of the 2015 movie version of Ben-Hur versus the classic 1959 version. I liked both, but realized I hadn’t read the underlying book, published in 1880. Now I have: forget the movies; read the book.

“When God walks the earth, his steps are often centuries apart.”

Moderns think, “That’s the story about the chariot race.” No. The chariot race occurs two-thirds of the way through, years before the ministry of Jesus. Both movies identify the source of a healing miracle as the blood of Jesus draining from the cross; the book ascribes a more obvious, but no less miraculous agent. Characters and subplots multiple, barely referred to in the movies.

“If thy faith is equal to thy knowledge, he will hear thee though all the heavens thunder.”

Like some modern novels, Ben-Hur weaves a new tale into the periphery of a well-known story, such as a Shakespeare play or a classic novel. Here the background story is the gospel of Jesus, the interwoven tale is that of Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Hellenized Jew of the Sadducee persuasion who runs afoul of vindictive Romans.

“The daughter who despises her father will bring her husband to grief.”

In addition to using the King James Version of the Bible as his outline and dialogue style book, Wallace wove in many nineteenth century myths surrounding the life of Jesus. For example one plot thread concerns one of the three wise men, using the traditional names. Jesus is described as physically fitting the northern European model prevalent in paintings of that time. Wallace had not yet visited the Holy Land when he wrote the novel (though he did later as US Minister to the Ottoman Empire) but he thoroughly researched its geography and history. Biographies suggest that the inciting incident of the book is modeled after how misunderstanding of his role at the battle of Shiloh hounded Wallace for the rest of his life.

“While carving justice for ourselves, it is never wise to be unjust to others.”

First published in 1880, Ben-Hur shares the credits and debits of nineteenth-century novels. Even the best suffer from long narrative descriptions and sermonizing. The characters tend to be idealized and the plots convoluted. The texture is rich, the pace occasionally slow.

“The poor make themselves poorer as apes of the rich, and the merely rich carry themselves like princes.”

Quibbles: Aside from perpetuating myths surrounding the person and history of Jesus, Wallace of course viewed the world as  his contemporaries. The term “millions” is loosely applied. For example, Wallace claims three million witnessed the Crucifixion. Ben-Hur himself is of too-good-to-be-true hero type. Despite his transparent Christianity, Wallace skips the Resurrection.

“He is never alone who is where God is–and God is everywhere.”

I often jot down apt quotes for inclusion in these reviews. Normally those notes fill two to three pages; Ben-Hur exceeded seven. Some have passed into our everyday language. For example, Rudyard Kipling is often credited with, “God could not be everywhere and therefore he made mothers.” In fact, Wallace published it in Ben-Hur when Kipling was but fourteen years old. (Other sources identify it as a Jewish proverb.) More quotes follow this review.

“All great peoples are proud, but the pride of [Rome] is … so grown the gods barely escape it.”

Finally, thanks to Project Gutenberg for keeping old works like this available in electronic form.

“God meant to make us know ourselves created for another and better life.”


“Apprehension always paints in black.”

“The enemy of man is man.”

“Understand your antagonist before you answer him.” Cicero

“All men and things, even heaven and earth, change; but a Jew never.”

“Why not the truth in a jest as well as in a parable?”

“Climate is a lawgiver everywhere.”

“It is a hard, cruel nature which in youth can forget its first loves.”

“That we must worship something is a law which will continue as long as there is anything we cannot understand.”

“Pride is never so loud as when in chains.”

“Hypocrisy seldom goes with wrinkled age.”

“The things thus in hope were unmixed with doubts–they WERE.”

“The dead come not back to redeem the pledge of the living.”

“They are happiest far whose consciences may calmly wait their right.” Schiller

“The fate of most good hearts [is] to be trampled upon by the unmerciful and blind.”

“Of those born to riches … how many there are in whose hands riches are but breeding curses.”

“Better a law without love than a love without law.”

“As a rule, there is no surer way to the dislike of men than to behave well where they have behaved badly.”

“She derived inspiration, if not wisdom, from her affection.”

“One can wait death with so much more faith out under the open sky.”

“Who dareth what I dare?”

“It is never wise to slip the bands of discipline.”

“All promises of men sometimes fail.”

“The wretchedness of the masses, and their hopeless condition had no relation whatever to religion.”

“The unhappy condition was not from religion, but misgovernment and usurpations and countless tyrannies.”

“The supplication–everywhere alike … was for a king to conquer with, not a god to worship.”

“The kingdom is not for [man], but for his soul.”

“[Rome is] a race that has forgotten what the truth is.”

“There are people to whom fortune is a curse in disguise.”

“Intelligence like God’s never stirs except with design.”

“Revenge is a Jew’s right; it is the law.”

“Peace is not possible to me while my people are lost.”

“Repentance must be something more than a mere repentance of sins; it comprehends a change of nature befitting heaven.”

“Would you hurt a man keenest, strike his self-love; would you hurt a woman worst, aim at her affections.”

“Let us have faith, God is good.”

“To be a leper is to be accounted as dead.”

“It is more becoming to trust in God.”

“Perfect love means perfect faith.”

“The ways of God were not as men has them.”

“A man drowning may be saved, not so a man in love.”