The World of Ben-Hur


“To the people of his hometown, Jesus was always a carpenter, the son of a carpenter, a man who worked with saws and planes. We have some of the same problems, except in reverse. We’ve always known Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. We can’t see him as an ordinary craftsman who made things with his hands and sold them to customers… Ben-Hur helps us imagine Jesus the man, the strangely ordinary carpenter who did and said such extraordinary things.” – Mike Aquilina, The World of Ben-Hur


Mike Aquilina is a Catholic historian and scholar of apostolic history. I discovered him when the t.v. series AD: The Continuing Story was preparing to air. Aquilina had consulted with Roma Downey and Mark Burnett and had composed a beautiful Bible study supplement that families could use while watching the series. While the series was not perfect, I am convinced that it served a good purpose and has the capacity to do much good in drawing people into an understanding of the apostolic age. Aquilina’s Viewer’s Guide does a gorgeous job of providing biblical, historical, and cultural context to the story as a whole. I hope to review the series and his book in the near future.


When the Ben-Hur film was being promoted I noticed that the ink was barely dry on a new support guide penned by Aquilina. The World of Ben-Hur is, in my mind, a gold mine of background and context that can support any reader or viewer of any of the Ben-Hur offerings. Diane and I are working on a detailed review of Lew Wallace’s novel, the Charlton Heston film, and the new film (spoiler: we hate the new film for complex reasons). In the interim, I wanted to get this review up so that readers and viewers could make full use of this excellent resource if they are movie-going or planning to read the novel.


When Aquilina wrote this 160+ page guide, he had not seen the new movie. Even though the cover on the book is the movie poster for the new film, the content inside is well grounded in Wallace’s novel.

This is a friendly, easy to access, and trustworthy resource. The Lew Wallace novel has many layers to it and advances some really challenging questions. This guide tackles some of those serious cultural questions – like the multifaceted approach to slavery, the history of Roman customs, what the term “Christ” meant to the people of that time, and what the cultural consequences of Jesus’ new theology were. Aquilina has done a beautiful job of breaking these down for us in a way that supports our ability to draw even more out of the novel and movies. I happened to have been reading this at the same time that my husband and I were watching Risen and The Young Messiah, and it was very helpful for understanding the subtext of those films as well. Reading this resource guide is akin to sitting with a Bible scholar and getting the backstory on the most interesting aspects of the movie and novel. As someone who has been reading or watching Ben-Hur almost every year for 30 years, I think that this guide is essential.

One of my favorite aspects about this resource is that it is set up in such a way that someone who is new to Ben-Hur could read the first four chapters and get grounded in the context and get inside the head of the author before they even begin the novel or the movies. By reading the first four chapters before experiencing Ben-Hur readers would gain a tour through the story landscape and see into some of the cultural nuances so that it feels familiar and less disorienting when they begin to read the novel.

Even if readers have some knowledge of Ben-Hur (like who marries whom, who dies, who wins the chariot race, etc.) I would still recommend saving the remaining 7 chapters until after they have seen or read Ben-Hur. Aquilina gives us an entire chapter on the Roman navy that is incredibly helpful in understanding why Wallace wrote the galley (war at sea) scenes as he did. This information is really interesting and helped to give me a more informed view of this aspect of the plot and cultural context, but it might very well be confusing to someone who has not yet read the novel or seen the movie.


Veteran readers could probably read the entire book in two or three sittings with a cup of tea. I enjoyed the writing and learned many new things. I intend to use this with my children when they are old enough to read Lew Wallace’s novel.


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