In AD 26, Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a wealthy Jewish prince in Jerusalem, who lives with his mother, Miriam (Martha Scott); his sister, Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell); their loyal slave, Simonides (Sam Jaffe); and his daughter, Esther (Haya Harareet) is betrayed by his best friend, ambitious Roman centurion, Messala (Stephen Boyd). Ben-Hur’s family is sent to prison, while he himself is condemned to the galleys. During a violent sea battle, Ben-Hur saves the life of galleon commander Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), a Roman consul. The grateful commander not only adopts Ben-Hur as his son, but also agrees to support his desire to become a champion charioteer. However, Ben-Hur declines the offer and returns to his home in Jerusalem. He meets Esther, and learns her arranged marriage did not occur and that she is still in love with him.
Later, Ben-Hur visits Messala and demands his mother and sister’s freedom. The Romans discover that Miriam and Tirzah contracted leprosy in prison, and expel them from the city. The women beg Esther to conceal their condition from Ben-Hur so that he may remember them as they were before. Following the request, Esther tells him that his mother and sister have died. It is then that Ben-Hur changes his mind and decides to seek vengeance on Messala by competing against him in the chariot race. During the chariot race, Messala drives a chariot with blades on the hubs to tear apart competing vehicles; he attempts to destroy Ben-Hur’s chariot but destroys his own instead. Messala is fatally injured, while Judah wins the race. Before dying, Messala tells Ben-Hur that his family, previously reported dead, is actually alive but living as lepers.
Ben-Hur visits the nearby leper colony, where hidden from their view, he sees his mother and sister. Blaming Roman rule for his family’s fate, Ben-Hur rejects his patrimony and Roman citizenship. Learning that Tirzah is dying, Ben-Hur and Esther take her and Miriam to see Jesus, but the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate – the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judaea – has begun. Ben-Hur witnesses the crucifixion of Jesus, while Miriam and Tirzah are miraculously healed during the rainstorm following the crucifixion. Finally, Ben-Hur declares, “And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.”