The Magi, the Epiphany, and Ben Hur

Eric Metaxas | BreakPoint | Monday, January 06, 2014

The Magi, the Epiphany, and Ben Hur


Today is the major Christian holiday that most Americans know little about: the Feast of the Epiphany. From the Greek word meaning “manifestation,” it celebrates the visitation of the Magi to the infant Jesus and his family in Bethlehem.

Until recently, in much of the Christian world, gifts were exchanged on Epiphany, not Christmas. My dear friend and BreakPoint colleague Roberto Rivera, who lived in Puerto Rico as a kid, recalls neighborhood children leaving straw out for the Magi’s camels on the night before Epiphany.

While people in Puerto Rico, like people elsewhere, have shifted their gift-giving to December 25, Epiphany still remains central to our Christian faith and, thus, is worthy of our attention.

Someone who understood this was a man named Lew Wallace. Few, if any, Americans have lived as eventful a life as Wallace. Civil War buffs will tell you that Wallace may have saved the Union at the Battle of the Monocacy in 1864. His forces delayed Confederate General Jubal Early long enough to prevent him from possibly capturing Washington, D.C.

Later, as territorial governor of New Mexico, he dealt with the likes of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

But it was a reunion of Civil War veterans that led to the action for which Wallace is best known. John Murray, headmaster of the Fourth Presbyterian School in Maryland and one of the Colson Center’s commissioned Centurions, recently told the story at the Fox News website.

On a train ride to an 1876 reunion in Indianapolis, Wallace was reunited with Colonel Robert Ingersoll, who was known as the “great agnostic.”  Ingersoll traveled around the country deriding and challenging people of faith.

Ingersoll did not spare his old comrade-in-arms, even though Wallace, at the time, was at best “indifferent” to his own Christian faith. Wallace later wrote, “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?”

Well, determined to prove Ingersoll wrong, Wallace returned to a short story he'd written during the Civil War. The story centered on the Magi, “who had captured his attention as a young boy -- taking a ‘lasting hold on his imagination.’ ”

Wallace asked “Who were they?  Whence did they come?”  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?”

Starting with this meditation on the Epiphany, Wallace expanded his story over the years, adding more and more meditations on the life of Christ.

Eventually, in 1880, he published his finished work. You may have heard of it: “Ben Hur: The Tale of the Christ.” The story about a fictitious Jewish prince named Judah Ben-Hur was the means by which Wallace “showed the necessity of a Savior.”

It remained the best-selling American novel until “Gone With the Wind” in 1936. And of course it was the basis of the 1959 film starring Charlton Heston, which won a record 11 Oscars.

By the time Wallace died in 1905, he believed that he had met Ingersol’s challenge. Millions of Americans agreed. And it all began with his reflecting on the visit of the Magi.

Come to, click on this commentary, and we’ll link you to John Murray’s excellent article on Lew Wallace and the Epiphany.

BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at where you can read and search answers to common questions.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Publication date: January 6, 2014