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Josephus and Judah Ben-Hur

Jon Solomon

This paper identifies Josephus as a primary source for Ben-Hur—no, not just the Charlton Heston movie but what several recent scholarly and institutional publications have identified as the “Ben-Hur phenomenon.” [Malamud, Ancient Rome and Modern America, 133-36; Solomon, “Ben-Hur Ephemera,” 22; Robin Rausch (]. As a best-selling novel, multi-million dollar Broadway production, and inspiration for not just two high-profile, very costly films prior to the Heston one but dozens of companies, brands, and products named Ben-Hur, General Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ turned popular fascination with the Roman Empire into big business in the early stages of American consumerism. Nonetheless, no published scholarship has attempted to identify Wallace’s classical sources.

Wallace derived Judah Ben-Hur, the protagonist of the novel, from the life and works of Josephus. Wallace’s Autobiography [2.891] reports that at the Library of Congress in 1873 he researched “everything on the shelves relating to the Jews.” Using Whiston’s translation, Wallace found in the Vita that the Jewish Josephus had been an anti-Roman commander, was captured by the Romans, and received both favor in Rome and citizenship as a Flavian; earlier he survived a shipwreck [BJ 2.7]. These major events in the life of Josephus provided a template for the events in the life of Judah Ben-Hur. Even more directly, the nomen of Josephus’ son, Flavius Simonides Agrippa, supplied the name for Judah’s faithful associate, Simonides. Josephus also details the career of the first-century, anti-Roman Zealot, Judas of Galilee [BJ 18.4], and in the novel Judah’s raised three anti-Roman legions in Galilee, and Judas is mentioned in a Galilean context several times. Wallace also derives his discursions on Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes from Josephus [AJ 13.5.9], and in identifying Judah as a Sadducee he establishes the cultural and theological justification for his vengeful quest to destroy his Roman adversary Messala. (Nonetheless, in the 1959 film it is Messala who is portrayed as the aggressor.)

Wallace employs Josephus’ account of Pompey’s entry into the Great Temple in Jerusalem [AJ 14.4] for the climax of his proem to Ben-Hur, and renders it as the symbolic beginning of Roman occupation. He then fast-forwards to the arrival of the Roman procurator Valerius Gratus, for whom Josephus [AJ 18.2] is our only literary source. The historical Gratus violated Jewish tradition by replacing the high priest, and Wallace makes this one of the initial turning points in the novel. It was during the initial procession of Gratus through Jerusalem that Judah accidentally knocked a tile from his parapet and caused his arrest. Josephus [BJ 2.9.2] described the historical event in which Pontius Pilate ordered troops to bring into the city at night a number of imperial images that represented a sacrilege to the Jewish population, causing a five day protest. Wallace involves Judah in this very incident. Later Judah learns that Pilate has appropriated sacred monies from the temple treasuries to build an aqueduct. This, too, comes from Josephus [BJ 2.9.4], who says that when the Jews protested this particular outrage, Pilate ordered Roman soldiers to disguise themselves as locals, infiltrate the crowd, and create a riot. Wallace recreates this part of Josephus’ account as well, and then he brings it to a climax by having his protagonist hero Judah fight a victorious and impressive duel against one of the disguised Roman centurions. The crowd of Galileans who watch this duel are duly impressed and find Judah worthy of being the leader of their anti-Roman rebellion, channeling Judas of Galilee.

Wallace also applied the thesis of Josephus’ Against Apion to affirm that Jewish philosophy and culture was older and superior to the Hellenic, and, by implication, far older and superior to the Roman. He applies this argument to the chauvinistic speech Judah’s mother gives him early in the novel, and it will lead, of course, to the triumph of Christianity at the conclusion of the novel.

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Innovative Encounters between Ancient Religious Traditions

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