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A Life So Changed: Spiritual Themes in Ben-Hur

Updated on September 5, 2011

By Hannah P.

One of the most interesting characters that I have ever encountered is the title character from the 1880 classic novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ , Judah Ben-Hur. He bears much resemblance to another famous character from classic literature, Edmund Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo .  In fact, Ben-Hur was inspired partly by Lew Wallace’s love of the novel by Alexandre Dumas. The influence of The Count of Monte Cristo can be seen in the theme of revenge. When Judah’s best friend Messala betrays him and condemns him to a life in the galleys, Judah swears vengeance, promising that Messala will be repaid for his crimes against the Hur family. However, these two stories take very different turns and result in two very different endings. Edmund’s story ends when he has extracted his vengeance against his enemies, but discovers that in revenge one must dig two graves: one for your enemy and one for yourself. Edmund finds that revenge leaves him with nothing of significance, and it doesn’t give the satisfaction he desires. Judah Ben-Hur on the other hand, discovers that forgiveness and mercy are far more healing, and though he does follow the path of revenge for a time, finds the justice he needs in forgiving his enemies. Judah’s journey is a slow and complicated one, but it leads him to the greatest gift of all: salvation. Through the influence of his loyal friends and the message of a teacher he comes to admire, Jesus Christ, Judah’s quest for vengeance is cooled and turned into a quest for God.

When I read the book Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ , I was struck by the spiritual themes in it. But it wasn’t until I saw the movie adaptations of the novel that I began to dig deeper to uncover the layers of insight within the story. The first adaption that I saw is by far the most popular one, and one of history’s greatest epics, the 1959 film Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston. But the newest adaption, a 2010 mini-series, is what got me interested in learning more about the spiritual influence in Judah Ben-Hur’s life.

Specifically, the thing that interested me the most was a scene that happens near the ending. In the film, Judah remains bitter and angry at the Romans for ruining his life, so much so that he sometimes fails to see what good things he still has. Even after defeating Messala in the chariot race, Judah’s anger is so great that he refuses to grant Messala’s last wish and visit him. But after seeing Jesus’ sacrifice and how He forgave His enemies, Judah experiences a change of heart. He goes to see his former best friend before he dies and discovers that Messala is truly sorry for betraying him. Judah experiences a change of heart and forgives Messala, finally able to see the truth in Jesus’ message of forgiveness and salvation.

In the book, Judah becomes a follower of Christ during His ministry, viewing Him from a political angle, as a savior from Roman rule. Other characters such as Balthazar (one of the three Magi), Simonides (Judah’s chief servant) and Esther (Simonides’ daughter) come to see Jesus as He really is: the savior of the world from its sins. They try to explain to Judah about Jesus’ real purpose on earth, but he refuses to listen. Judah’s heart is hard from betrayal and his desire for retribution, and he sees Jesus as an earthly king, come to save the world from the Romans. But as he listens to Jesus’ teaching, as he witnesses the miracles He performs, Judah comes to see the truth in his friends’ words. He comes to see Jesus as the Christ, a spiritual savior for the world and not just a righter of wrongs. Judah’s heart is changed, and his thoughts of vengeance make way for new thoughts and desires. After the crucifixion and Jesus’ resurrection, Judah becomes a champion for the new Christian church, devoting his life to its survival.

In the 1959 movie, Judah meets Jesus for the first time while on a prisoner march to the Roman galleys. Exhausted, injured, and at the point of despair, Judah is about to succumb to his trials. That is when Jesus gives him a drink of water, and with a single look, gives Judah a reason to press onward. This act of mercy is repeated when Judah offers Jesus a drink while on His march to Calvary. The most poignant line in the entire movie is the last one Judah says. After witnessing the crucifixion and the subsequent healing of his mother and sister’s leprosy, Judah says, “I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.” Jesus’ message of forgiveness and salvation, a message that Judah had fought all through the story, is finally embraced, and Judah finds that with it comes a measure of restoration and peace that no amount of revenge could bring him.

Perhaps Edmund Dantes could have learned a lesson or two from Judah Ben-Hur.

(Parts of this article were published formerly in the Costume Chronicles -


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    • cmoneyspinner1tf profile image

      Treathyl FOX 4 years ago from Austin, Texas

      I didn't know there was a mini-series. Now I'm interested. But I probably won't like it as much as the movie with Charlton Heston. That movie is from my childhood. I just couldn't betray my loyalty to Chuck like that. :)

      In Memory of: Charlton Heston (October 4, 1923 – April 5, 2008)