Judah and Massala are close friends growing up, though one is Jewish and the other Roman. But when an accident happens after Massala returns from five years in Rome, Massala betrays his childhood friend and family. Judah’s mother and sister are taken away to prison, and he is sent to a galley-ship. Years later, Judah rescues a ship’s captain from drowning after a ship-to-ship battle, and the tribune adopts him in gratitude. Judah then devotes himself to learning as much as he can about being a warrior, in the hopes of leading an insurrection against Rome. He thinks he’s found the perfect leader in a young Nazarite, but is disappointed at the young man’s seeming lack of ambition.
Before writing Ben-Hur, Lew Wallace was best known for being a Major General in the American Civil War. After the war, a conversation with an atheist caused Wallace to take stock of how little he knew about his own religion. He launched into what would be years of research so that he could write with accuracy about first-century Israel. Although Judah Ben-Hur is the novel’s main character, the book’s subtitle, “A Tale of the Christ,” reveals Wallace’s real focus. Sales were only a trickle at the beginning, but it soon became a bestseller, and went on to become the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century. It has never been out of print, and to date has inspired two plays, a TV series, and five films—one of which, the 1959 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer epic, is considered to be one of the best films yet made.