In the 1959 classic film Ben-Hur, Judah Ben-Hur and Jesus Christ are two of the most prominent Jewish characters in a predominately Roman world. The two work together, impacting both the Jewish and Roman worlds through Christianity. This is in spite of significant differences, particularly in socioeconomic backgrounds and portrayals within the film.
Judah Ben-Hur is undoubtedly the most important character in the entire film — he’s the titular role, after all. Ben-Hur is a prince who “is the richest man in Jerusalem” at the beginning of the film and eventually becomes a champion charioteer during the climax. Charlton Heston, who plays Ben-Hur, was one of the most highly regarded actors of his time, and was certainly the leading man in the film.
Jesus, meanwhile, is the son of a carpenter and lives as a far poorer man than Ben-Hur. Jesus’ face was never depicted in the film, and the character is put to death by crucifixion. The actor who played Jesus wasn’t even credited for his work.
Both are, however, politically important Jews who have rejected the mainstream Roman way of life. Jesus preaches that God is the only god, while Judah chooses his people over his best friend. Judah eventually rejects Roman life more as a choice of spite after his mother Miriam and sister Tirzah contract leprosy in prison.
Two scenes symbolize the unification of the Roman and Jewish worlds: Jesus’ giving water to Ben-Hur and the aforementioned crucifixion of the Christ.
The first scene shows Judah at what is his lowest point in the film. His former best friend, Messala, sentenced him to work as a slave on a galley, knowing he did not actually intend to kill the new emperor of Judea. His mother and sister were also condemned to imprisonment. All of this was in a move of political intimidation to keep the Jews in line with the Romans.
Jesus was the only man who gave Ben-Hur water and wasn’t stopped. This is remarkably similar to the biblical story in which Jesus offered water to a Samaritan woman. When Jesus spoke, he explained how the water served as a symbol with a higher meaning:
“Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” (John 4:13–14)
The scene in Ben-Hur parallels this part of the Bible in that the other slaves are drinking earthly water and living earthly lives. The symbolism in this scene is both literal and metaphorical. It also foreshadows how Ben-Hur will become successful once again if he stays true to God, which does eventually happen.
Jesus giving the water to Ben-Hur also symbolizes Christianity being a form of rescue for the Jewish people. In the film, the Jews are under Roman oppression and are required to submit to the Caesar as their god. Jesus represents Christianity and Judah Ben-Hur represents the Jewish people, in which Ben-Hur accepting water from Jesus is parallel to the Jews accepting Christianity as the ultimate form of religion, which would save them from Roman rule.
Jesus’ crucifixion also displays the Jewish-Roman connection. This scene represents a change in the political and cultural landscape in the Roman Empire in the same way the crucifixion changed these things in the Bible. In Christian belief, Jesus’ dying on the cross atones for the world’s sins.
In the film, Judah and his mother and sister witness Jesus’ crucifixion. Tirzah and Miriam both are healed of their leprosy by rain after the crucifixion, which is representative of Jesus’ actions giving forgiveness for the world’s sin.
Ben-Hur no longer feels burdened by his anger after Jesus dies on the cross, saying the last lines of the film: “I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.” In this, Ben-Hur feels compelled to convert to Christianity and use his political power to further Jesus’ cause after the Christ had made sure to show kindness to him during his lowest times.
Jesus Christ and Judah Ben-Hur may have been very different on the surface in Ben-Hur, but both eventually support one another when needed the most. Their interaction is also symbolic of Christianity affecting Jewish and Roman culture, completely upending the former and invading, then conquering, the latter. ■