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Ben-Hur on a Bet?

We frequently receive questions by e-mail relating to Lew Wallace, and I received one today asking whether or not Lew Wallace wrote Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ on a bet. Lew Wallace’s motivation to write Ben-Hur has been the subject of many discussions, beginning during his lifetime. Wallace answered this oft-posed question by writing “How I Came to Write Ben-Hur” for his Autobiography.

Lew Wallace did not write Ben-Hur on a bet
Lew Wallace writing underneath the Ben-Hur beech tree

To summarize: Wallace began writing what would become the novel beginning with his personal exploration of the first Christmas. He laid the manuscript aside without the thought of a formal book.

Then, in 1876, while riding a train to Indianapolis, Wallace engaged in a conversation about God and Christianity, realized he was not as informed as he thought he was, and as a result, “…the mortification of pride I then endured, or if it be preferred, the punishment of spirit, ended in a resolution to study the whole matter, if only for the gratification there might be in having convictions of one kind or another.” (Wallace, Autobiography Vol. II 1906)

So, it was Wallace’s idea to undertake a study of Christ rather than a bet from someone else, and reviving his earlier manuscript of the first Christmas, he wrote a tale of Christ through the life of a contemporary, Judah Ben-Hur.

As for Christ’s appearance in the novel, Wallace stated that “…He should not be present as an actor in any scene of my creation. The giving a cup of water to Ben-Hur at the well near Nazareth is the only violation of this rule. Finally, when He was come, I would be religiously careful that every word He uttered should be a literal quotation from one of His sainted biographers.” (Wallace, Autobiography Vol. II 1906)

Lew was also insistent that Christ not be played by a person in the Broadway stage production of Ben-Hur that began in 1899; the producers solved this by portraying Christ with a shaft of white light rather than an actor.

Many things happen as a result of bets, but this particular best-selling novel was not one of them.

–Amanda Wesselmann, Associate Director

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