“Where is he that is born King of the Jews?”
At Christmas pageants around the country, the mysterious Magi will ask their annual question before audiences young and old. Will this query have the same profound impact that it did on a renowned Union General -- one whose resulting novel has remained in print since its first edition in 1880?
Reaching millions throughout the late 19th and 20th century, the book’s origin can be traced to a train ride to Indianapolis in 1876, where two Civil War compatriots -- Colonel Robert Ingersoll and Major General Lew Wallace -- providentially reunited.
Since the War, Ingersoll had become known to America as “the Great Agnostic,” traveling the countryside to challenge and deride people of faith.
Holding nothing back on this landmark night, Ingersoll challenged Wallace’s Christian beliefs as the two men travelled together.
Although raised in the Methodist church, Wallace was self-admittedly indifferent to Christianity.
Nevertheless, Ingersoll’s arguments shook him to the core.
As Wallace would later recount in 1899, “To lift me out of my indifference, one would think only strong affirmations of things regarded holiest would do. Yet here was I now moved as never before, and by what? The most outright denials of all human knowledge of God, Christ, Heaven, and the Hereafter which figures so in the hope and faith of the believing everywhere. Was the Colonel right?”
Ashamed of “his ignorance” Wallace vowed that night to write upon his reflections of the Christian faith -- hearkening back to a short story he had written several years before in the wake of his post-Civil War restiveness.
The story, inspired by the Biblical account of the Christ’s birth, had centered upon the Magi, or wise men, who had captured his attention as a young boy -- taking a “lasting hold on his imagination.”
“Who were they? Whence did they come?” Wallace wondered. “Above all, what led them to Jerusalem, asking of all they met the strange question, ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.’”
Following his encounter with Ingersoll, the much-shaken Wallace decided to extend his story, reaching forward to the account of Jesus’ crucifixion.
His book’s title? "Ben Hur: The Tale of the Christ."
Centered upon the fictitious Jewish character Judah Ben-Hur, Wallace spent seven years researching the time period and setting of his work. “[I decided] to show the religious and political condition of the world at the time of coming. Perhaps those conditions would demonstrate the necessity of a Saviour.”
While not the focal point of the story, Wallace kept the Son of God before his readers with great reverence.
As he would later write in his autobiography, “[I was] careful that every word He uttered should be a literal quotation from one of His sainted biographers.”
Divine words that would pierce Wallace’s heart: “Long before I was through with my book, I became a believer in God and [Jesus] Christ.”
A best seller of the nineteenth century, "Ben Hur" outsold every book except the Bible from 1880 to 1936. Translated into twenty languages by 1900, the story was performed on stage from 1899 to 1920 and seen by over twenty million people.
The book was not without effect on White House residents.
In a letter penned to Wallace on April 19, 1881, from the Executive Mansion, President James Garfield declared: “Several of the scenes such as the wise men in the desert -- the sea fight -- the chariot race -- will I am sure take a permanent and high place in literature. With this beautiful and reverent book you have lightened the burden of my daily life.”
The most far-reaching depiction of Ben Hur would come after Wallace’s death, with the MGM film release in 1959. Seen by over tens of millions in movie theaters nationwide, the film version won 11 academy award nominations including best actor and best picture.
Today, the film is ranked 13th on Box Office Mojo’s all-time highest grossing films in North America adjusted for inflation.
As a great irony of history, Wallace’s work greatly undermined Ingersoll’s speaking campaign.
Reflecting years later on his meeting with the Colonel, Wallace declared, “It only remains to say that 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.”
A belief still embraced by millions today.
John Murray serves as Headmaster of Fourth Presbyterian School in Potomac, Maryland.