November 26, 2020

Ben Hur and the Nativity

The Numbering at Bethlehem, Bruegel

Guest Post by Andy Zehner

The readers of iMonk can, I’m sure, give a very good account of the theology of the Incarnation and the fulfillment in Christ of Messianic prophesies. Many can recite the second chapter of Luke from “And it came to pass in those days . . .” to “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” without skipping a beat.

Yet I suspect that even the experts have some false notions about Christmas. We know from scripture all we need to know about the nativity. Yet we lack many details. And much that we think we know is probably wrong.

The Adoration of the Magi, Botticelli

It is odd that an event about which we reflect so often, so deeply and with such admiration, can nevertheless be so vague. Most of the visual images we hold in our minds about Christmas come from artwork. Much of this artwork is very good and much was created for the edification of Christians. But it is the nature of art, from the highest Renaissance painting to the most facile greeting card illustration, to leave out details, the better to focus the viewer’s eye on the subject.

Illustrations of the manger prove my point. The setting has been done hundreds of times, and the results are pretty similar. They all contain Mary and the baby with Joseph standing nearby. Most have a single cow and donkey in deference to Isaiah 1:3. Most depict a few shepherds and (absurdly) an equal number of sheep. And many present the three magi and their camels, even though we know that the magi came later.  There are exceptions. There’s the Botticelli masterpiece in which 15th Century Florentine politicians jockey for position around the manger, and there’s the ice skaters gliding past the Holy Family in Breugel’s The Numbering at Bethlehem. But even the most realistic of our Christmas images lack authenticity.

Understand, I’m not criticizing the art.  “The wisdom of our ancestors is in it; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for.” Those are the right elements for a painting of the nativity. But when we settle on the details that we’re going to actually believe – and we must have details in order to believe anything — we’d do well to seek the realistic details of the first Christmas not in the visual artwork, but in that form that best handles detail: literature. And the specific piece of literature that may depict the nativity most accurately and in greatest detail is Ben Hur by Lew Wallace.

We know from the scriptures and from carols that Joseph and Mary found no room at the inn when they arrived in Bethlehem. In the imagination of the painter, this fact becomes a quiet twilight scene with only Joseph, Mary and the innkeeper standing in a vacant courtyard.

But is that what happened? Is that even a reasonable supposition? We know from Luke that all Judea was on the move at that time, with each man returning to his ancestral home for the Roman census. All those of the house of David gathered in Bethlehem. This, on top of the usual press of caravan traffic, makes “Oh little town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie” quite improbable.

In Ben Hur, Wallace envisions a scene to dazzle Mary’s senses:

She found herself at the edge of an assemblage that could not be other than a matter of curiosity to her although it was common enough at the khans on any of the highways which the great caravans were accustomed to traverse. There were men on foot, running hither and thither, talking shrilly and in all the tongues of Syria; men on horseback screaming to men on camels; men struggling doubtfully with fractious cows and frightened sheep; men peddling bread and wine;  and among the mass a herd of boys apparently in chase of a herd of dogs. Everybody and everything seemed to be in motion at the same time.

Joseph would have had to force his way through this crowd merely to reach to door. But when he got there, the master of the house would have done more than spread his hands and say, “No Vacancy.”

“The peace of Jehovah be with you,” said Joseph, at last confronting the keeper.

“What you give, may you find again; and when found be it many times multiplied to you and yours,” returned the watchman gravely, though without moving.

“I am a Bethlehemite,” said Joseph in his most deliberate way. “Is there not room for —”

“There is not.”

“This is the house of my fathers. I am of the house of David.” These words held the Nazarene’s hope. To be a son of Judah was in the tribal opinion a great thing; to be of the tribe of David was yet another; on the tongue of a Hebrew there could be no higher boast. To say, as Joseph said, “This is the house of my fathers,” was to say the truth most simply and literally; for this was the very house Ruth ruled as the wife of Boaz; the very house in which Jesse and his ten sons, David the youngest, were born.

The appeal was not without effect. The keeper of the gate slid down from the cedar block and, laying his hand upon his beard said respectfully, “Rabbi, I cannot tell you when this door first opened in welcome to the traveler, but it was more than a thousand years ago; and in all that time there is no known instance of a good man turned away, save when there was no room to rest him in.”

Icon of the Nativity of Our Lord

There follows, in Wallace’s imagined encounter, a lengthy discourse, with the innkeeper balancing his duty to accommodate a son of David with his prior obligations to all those who’d arrived earlier. He evokes Leviticus 19:34 to strengthen his case. Joseph, for his part, stolidly insists that he must have shelter for his wife. At last the master relents and leads them to the enclosed cave—not because it is the least he can do, but because it is the best he can do.

Wallace tells the story slowly and compassionately, with an interest in everything. He dwells upon Mary’s beauty and piety, though he draws a veil around her thoughts. He devotes pages to the shepherds who, he insists, were for all their roughness tenderhearted from caring for young lambs and defenseless sheep. And he draws us along with the rest of a fascinated crowd who follow three tremendous camels bearing strange and magnificent messengers out of the desert.

Wallace is most concerned with telling the story, and yet his narrative does, in places, expound the scriptures. We might tend to think that the manger birth only signifies Jesus’ humility. But it was because the Christ lay, of all places, in a manger, that he was known to those who came to worship him.

The first shepherd gazed into the fire thoughtfully, but at length said, like one possessed of a sudden resolve, “There is but one place in Bethlehem where there are mangers; and that is in the cave near the old khan. Brethren, let us go see this thing which has come to pass. The priests and doctors have been a long time looking for the Christ. Now he is born, and the Lord has given us a sign by which to know him. Let us go up and worship him.”

Perhaps the best invention in Wallace’s narrative is kinswomen to tend Mary. The Bible doesn’t say there were or weren’t other people present, of course. But how could there not have been? The census had drawn all the relatives of Joseph together in that place. It was a family reunion! So it is both comforting and sensible to suppose that when Mary began her labor, there were gentle and experienced older women there to do what needed doing. The involvement of those women, if they existed as Wallace posits, has no impact on the sacred aspects of the story. They were just fulfilling a decent human obligation and were unaware that something holy was happening.

Few there were who had seen the signs and heard the promises—the Mother and Joseph, the shepherd and the three—yet they all believed alike. In this period of the plan of salvation God was all and the Child nothing. But look forward, O Reader! A time will come when all the signs proceed from the Son. Happy they who then believe in Him.

When it was published in 1880, Ben Hur astounded the nation. It became the most successful American novel of the latter half of the 19th Century. It played on Broadway for 20 years, with live horses thundering across the stage on a massive treadmill. The novel has been translated in many languages and made into four films.

Wallace’s reputation as an Orientalist was so great that President James Garfield appointed him ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. (The word “khan” in English signifies a Persian political leader. But Wallace uses it in the Turkic sense of a living space.)

Lew would be pleased that his book remains in print and is still being read more than a century later. I imagine he’d be especially glad that the book he subtitled “A Tale of the Christ” is still read by Christians as well as by fans of drama, and that his kind-hearted telling of the nativity holds up as well as the chariot races and sea battles.

I recommend Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ to the iMonk community this Christmas season.


  1. Thanks for filling in some of the gaps. The part about kinswomen (or kinsmen) is a good point, and I can imagine it was a great time for anyone interested in family genealogy. Perhaps while Joseph was waiting for news of the birth (outside, away from the women, playing backgammon and possibly smoking) he heard stories from other travelers: “Oh, so you’re the grandson of Matthan! I can tell you such a story about him!”

    About one detail, however: you’ve referred to “the” three magi and their camels, as if there were only three. But the bible doesn’t say how many! Matthew’s gospel says there were wise men, or magi, come from the east. The assumption of “three” apparently comes from the gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh; three types, but not necessarily three gifts nor three givers. It’s quite possible that there was a whole caravan, and that would have worried Herod all the more than only three men come to worship the new king.

    On the other end of the story, by the way, is the assumption that Jesus was crucified “on a hill, far away”. The bible doesn’t say hill; the hymn does. But save that for next spring.

    • True, Ted. There’s no necessity in three wise men.

      Lew Wallace accepts the tradition of three in his book, though, and that is what I’m reporting. One of the wise men is important in the the story arc of the novel.

    • Interesting, I was taught in seminary that there must have been a caravan for several reasons. One, if they did come from the area of the old Babylonian Empire towards the Middle East, the trade routes were not so safe that three rich men could travel by themselves safely. Two, no rich person in that era would have traveled without servants, attendants, animal minders, supplies, mules, camels, etc., plus the armed guards to protect the whole assemblage.

      This also explains the reason why Herod would have both received them and simply questioned them without further interruption. No ruler who is willing to kill people to preserve his rule (and history does show that) would have thought twice about capturing and extracting information from three rich fools traveling by themselves. He would have thought twice about attacking an assemblage that he might defeat, but at a difficult cost.

  2. The popular nativity drama conflates Matthew with Luke (so that magi may comingle with shepherds), with both accepted as historical fact rather than folkloric legend (historians doubt the census, the slaughter of the innocents, and Jesus’s connection with Bethlehem, let alone the various supernatural elements), and add animals for color. Realism is obviously not a concern here. Why not throw in the Little Drummer Boy as well?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      The subject here is the Nativity tradition as used in Ben Hur, Werner.

    • Here is the problem I have. I can find people who doubted that Troy existed because it was myth. Until it was found. And there recently were people in the last decade who doubted whether King David existed, until an inscription with his name was found. So serious were they about doubting his existence that they even said that the inscription referred to a previously unknown god! Needless to say, that caused quite a bit of hilarity, but you can look up the news media reports from a couple of years ago. And these folk were professional archeologists and professors! It is now acknowledged that King David existed.

      I am aware of the various doubts that have been raised, but I am not convinced that they are quite as certain as you picture them.

  3. Anyone here familiar with Kenneth Bailey? His book “Jesus Through Middle-eastern Eyes” has some very eye opening observations and puts the Luke text in its context. Also in a video called “A Clear View of Jesus’ Birth”. Found out about him from an N.T. Wright lecture.

    • Pete, without giving away too much of what is in the video, can you share a few points that Bailey makes in the video? I did an internet search to see who Bailey is and he does appear to be a very scholarly man.

  4. FYI, Ben Hur is available in the public domain for free because it is out of print. That means you can download it LEGALLY for free in many different formats from, or open library, or project gutenberg, google books, etc.

    I am currently reading the 1908 Wallace Memorial Ed. on my Kindle.

    I noticed the earlier scans had quite a lot of typos from the initial scanning in.

    • Thanks for giving us a little more storyline from Ben-Hur. I’m embarassed to say my only exposure has been the movie. I would like to have seen more of what you have shared on screen.

  5. Jonathanblake says

    I read this in high school for a book report; I never regretted picking that book from the book list. It’s definitely one of my favorites!

  6. Hmmm, Andy, now I want to read Ben Hur.
    There is also an Interesting (but long) article at the link above about the birth of Jesus. You likely have heard many of the things before. Basically, it says that though we have heard that there was “no room in the inn” so Jesus was born in a stable, the fact is that the word used for “inn” can also be “guest room.” The author goes on to say that it would have been unthinkable, given the Middle Eastern hospitality ways, that room would not have been made for Joseph and pregnant Mary to join a family in their home. Especially because they would have had relatives in that town.

    And, Bethlehem was a boondocks kind of place that would not have been apt to even have had an inn. Homes at that time (and often still) have their stable as part of the house, on a lower level. They bring their animals in at night to keep them warm and the animals warm the place up as well. Then the animals are taken out each morning. The manger is often a hole in the rock floor of the family room in which food is stored for the animals (the homes were often in caves) or it can be like a hanging basket.

    So, the article says Mary and Joseph may have taken up residence in the main part of a house and Mary did lie Jesus in a manger and there were animals around.

    • If anyone clicks on that link I wrote, you will see that part of it got “cut off,” so you will have to copy and paste the-Inn.aspx at the end of the URL when you get to a page that says it doesn’t exist.

      By the way, I realize now that the author is Kenneth Bailey who I see is recommended by another commenter down below.

  7. I really wish you’d consider adding a “Share this” butto to your site, so that your woonderfl articles might be more widely read!

  8. I haven’t read Ben Hur in years, but I remember it as a wonderful book!! I heartily second your recommendation!

  9. Its been a great book of all times. thank you for providing great informations.