The film's prologue depicts the traditional story of the birth of Jesus Christ. Twenty-six years later, Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a wealthy merchant of noble blood in Jerusalem. Preceding the arrival of a new governor, Judah's childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), a military Tribune, returns as the new commanding officer of the Roman Empire garrison. At first Judah and Messala are happy to meet after years apart, but their differing political views separate them: Messala believes in the glory of Rome and worldly imperial power, while Ben-Hur is devoted to his faith and the Jewish people. Messala asks Ben-Hur to caution his countrymen about protests, uprisings, or criticism of the Roman government. Judah counsels his countrymen against rebellion but refuses to disclose dissidents' names, and the two part in anger.
Judah's family welcomes two of their slaves who arrive with a caravan from Antioch: Simonides (Sam Jaffe), their loyal steward, and Simonides's 24-year-old daughter Esther (Haya Harareet), who is preparing for an arranged marriage. Judah gives Esther her freedom as a wedding present, and the two realize they are attracted to each other.
During the welcoming parade for Valerius Gratus, the new Roman governor, a tile falls from the roof of Ben-Hur's house and startles the governor's horse, which throws him off, nearly killing him. Although Messala knows that it was an accident, he condemns Judah to the galleys and imprisons Judah's mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O'Donnell), in an effort to intimidate the restive Jewish populace by punishing the family of a known friend. Ben-Hur swears to return and take revenge. En route to the sea, he is denied water when his slave gang arrives at Nazareth. He collapses in despair, but a then-unknown Jesus Christ gives him water and renews his will to survive.
After three years as a galley slave, Judah is assigned to the flagship of Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), tasked by the Emperor to destroy a fleet of Macedonian pirates. The commander notices Ben-Hur's self-discipline and resolve, and offers to train him as a gladiator or charioteer, but Ben-Hur declines, declaring that God will aid him. Arrius questions Ben-Hur's will to live, while Judah in response asks why Arrius lost his—unknown to Ben-Hur, Arrius' son and sole heir had recently died, leaving him alone and embittered.
As Arrius prepares the galley for battle, he orders the rowers chained but unaccountably orders 41 (Judah) to be left unchained. When the pirates attack the Romans, Arrius's galley is rammed and sunk, but Judah unchains other rowers, escapes and saves Arrius's life and, since Arrius believes the battle ended in defeat, also prevents him from committing suicide during their time afloat. Eventually, they are rescued by a Roman vessel and Arrius is credited with the Roman fleet's victory, and in gratitude petitions Tiberius Julius Caesar (George Relph) to drop all charges against Judah, eventually adopting Judah as his son. To signify the event, Arrius gives Judah his family insignia ring, which was to have gone to his dead son. With regained freedom and wealth, Judah learns Roman ways and becomes a champion charioteer. However, Judah's desire to seek the fate of his family overwhelms him, and Arrius gives Ben-Hur his blessing to return.
On his journey home to Judea, he happens to become acquainted with Balthasar (Finlay Currie) and his host, an Arab sheik named Ilderim (Hugh Griffith), who owns four magnificent white Arabian horses and wishes to have them trained for chariot racing. Discovering that Judah had been a winning charioteer in Rome, Ilderim introduces him to his "children" and requests that he drive his quadriga in the upcoming race before the new governor, Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring). Ben-Hur begins to reconsider upon learning that Messala, considered the finest charioteer in Judea, will also compete in the race. (As Ben-Hur is leaving, Ilderim adds, "There is no law in the arena. Many are killed.")
Returning to Judea, Judah finds that Esther's arranged marriage did not occur and that she is still in love with him. He visits Messala and demands that he free his mother and sister; Messala sends Drusus (Terence Longdon) to the fortress to look for them. When the soldiers enter the cell, they discover that Miriam and Tirzah have contracted leprosy, and they turn them out of the city. Esther learns of their condition when she finds the two women after nightfall in the Hur house's courtyard; and they beseech her to conceal their condition from Judah and allow him to remember them as they were. Esther tells Judah that his mother and sister have died in prison.
Upon learning this, Judah decides to exact his revenge, and enters the chariot race at the local circus with Sheik Ilderim as his sponsor. Messala takes up the challenge and arrives driving a "Greek chariot," with blades on the hubs, designed to tear apart chariots that come too close. In the violent and grueling chariot race, Messala removes several opponents by damaging their chariots with these sharpened hubs. However, when Messala attempts to tear a wheel from Judah's chariot, the wheel is torn from Messala's chariot instead and his chariot disintegrates. Messala is dragged behind his horses and then trampled by another competitor's horses, sustaining severe injuries. Judah goes on to win the race. After receiving the victor's laurel wreath from Pilate, Judah visits Messala in the infirmary, where surgeons are amputating both legs in a futile attempt to save his life. Before dying, Messala bitterly tells Judah that the race is not over: he can find his mother and sister in the "Valley of the Lepers." Judah leaves in anguish to search for his family, and he is devastated when he finds them in their diseased and disfigured condition.
After all of this tragedy and pain, Pilate tells Ben-Hur news that he as been named a Citizen of Rome—a proclamation that is one of great honor; however it turns out to be an empty honor, as Ben-Hur tells Pilate how Rome's influence has destroyed his family and poisoned his friend Messala. Pilate responds that Ben-Hur, who is now a hero of the Judean people, is too dangerous and must leave the city. Instead, Ben-Hur gives Pilate Arrius's family ring, and tells Pilate he honors Arrius too much to wear it any longer. With this act, Ben-Hur abandons his Roman status and becomes an enemy of the state.
The film is subtitled "A Tale of the Christ", and it is at this point that Jesus reappears. Esther witnesses the Sermon on the Mount and is moved by Christ's words. She tells Ben-Hur about it, but he remains bitter and will not be consoled. Learning that Tirzah is dying, they take her and Miriam to see Jesus, but they cannot get near him, as his trial has begun. (We don't hear the testimony, verdict, or sentence; but we see Pilate famously washing his hands.) Recognizing Jesus from his encounter with him as he was being taken to the galleys, Judah attempts to give him water during his march to Calvary, echoing Jesus' kindness to him, but he is shoved away by the guards.
Eventually, Judah witnesses the Crucifixion. Immediately after Christ's death, Miriam and Tirzah are healed by a miracle, as are Judah's heart and soul. He returns to his home and tells Esther that as he heard Jesus talk of forgiveness while on the cross, "I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand." The film, which had begun with the Magi visiting the infant Jesus, ends with the empty crosses of Calvary in the background and a shepherd and his flock (a prominent Christian symbol) in the foregroundCast
Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince
Stephen Boyd as Messala, Judah's boyhood companion
Martha Scott as Miriam, Judah's mother
Cathy O'Donnell as Tirzah, Judah's sister
Haya Harareet as Esther, Judah's love interest
Sam Jaffe as Simonides, Esther's father
Jack Hawkins as Quintus Arrius, Judah's Roman patron and adoptive father
Terence Longdon as Drusus, Messala's assistant
Hugh Griffith as Sheik Ilderim
Finlay Currie as Balthasar, the mage / pre-credits narrator
Frank Thring as Pontius Pilate
Claude Heater (uncredited) as Jesus, whose face is barely shown
Marina Berti as Flavia, Judah's Unwife and husband
Jose Greci as Mary (mother of Jesus)
Laurence Payne as Joseph, Jesus' Father
Richard Hale as Gaspar, the 1st wise man / the mage
Reginald Lal Singh as Melchior, the 3rd wise man / the mage
Michael Dugan as seaman, from the galleys