Ben-Hur: What a Backstory

Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) gives water to slave Ben-Hur (Jack Huston)
Photo: ShareBenHur.com

The classic MGM movie, Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston, won eleven Oscars as it displayed passion and pageantry, betrayal and bitterness, grace and redemption.

Now, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey—with MGM and Paramount—have remade this film for a new generation. 

Ben-Hur's depiction of revenge, reconciliation and redemption generates a powerful message for today. It speaks to concerns about racial and religious violence, cop killings and more.  Actor Morgan Freeman, who plays Skeik Ilderim, Ben-Hur’s mentor, told me recently at a press event, "The movie is very timely, for those reasons."  Roma Downey added, "There's so much fear and confusion out there, a lot of chaos. … People are hungry for hope."

The movie focuses on two brothers in first-century Palestine split over the Roman occupation. Messala sides with Rome, Judah Ben-Hur with his Jewish heritage.

When Ben-Hur seeks revenge against Messala, in a chariot race. "First to finish, last to die" is the watchword as the brothers claw for advantage.

But something happens inside Ben-Hur to break the cycle of hatred, as it did for the author of the book “Ben–Hur,” which became the best–selling novel of the 19th century.

A chance encounter?

In 1876, when Civil War general Lew Wallace took a train to Indianapolis for a convention, he encountered Robert Ingersoll, a noted agnostic, who wanted to converse with this Union Army Leader, Wallace agreed, provided Ingersoll let him choose the subject.

"Is there a God?" began Wallace. 

 "I don't know: do you?" replied Ingersoll.   

 "Is there a Devil?" continued Wallace. 

 "I don't know: do you?" countered Ingersoll.

Wallace, who considered himself indifferent to religion, continued with questions about heaven, hell, the hereafter and more.  Ingersoll responded the same, then launched into a discourse.

"I sat spellbound," Wallace later wrote, "listening to a medley of argument, eloquence, wit, satire, audacity, irreverence, poetry, brilliant antitheses, and pungent excoriation of believers in God, Christ, and Heaven, the like of which I had never heard."

The skeptic's arguments jolted Wallace from his spiritual indifference:  "I [was] now moved as never before, and by what? Ashamed of his poor knowledge about faith, he resolved to study and learn. 

He decided to write a book about Jesus that would force him to thoroughly research the matter. "I did as resolved, with results—first, the book 'Ben-Hur,' and second, a conviction amounting to absolute belief in God and the Divinity of Christ."

Convinced that people would not appreciate a novel with Jesus as protagonist, Wallace fashioned the story of a young Jewish noble – Judah Ben-Hur – who, betrayed by his brother, would suffer years in slavery before returning home to exact revenge.  Along the way, a young Nazarene gave him a drink of water that helped sustain his life. 


Harper Brothers published the novel in 1880.  It has never been out of print.

As you watch this new film presentation, maybe this backstory can add context to the movie's theme.  And perhaps the film will prompt you to study as Wallace did to see if Jesus really is "the way, the truth, and the life" who can forgive and give us strength to forgive our adversaries.

Rated PG-13 (USA) "for sequences of violence and disturbing images."

www.BenHurMovie.com  Opens August 19 (USA) |  International opening dates



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