In AD 26, Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a wealthy Jewish prince and merchant in Jerusalem, who lives with his mother, Miriam (Martha Scott); his sister, Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell); and their female servant Amrah (Stella Vitelleschi). The family’s loyal slave, the merchant Simonides (Sam Jaffe) who manages Judah’s affairs, pays a visit with his daughter, Esther (Haya Harareet). Seeing each other for the first time since childhood, Judah and Esther fall in love, but she is betrothed to another. Judah’s childhood friend, the Roman citizen Messala (Stephen Boyd), is now a tribune. After several years away from Jerusalem, Messala returns as the new commander of the Roman garrison, the Fortress of Antonia. Messala believes in the glory of Rome and its imperial power, while Judah is devoted to his faith and the freedom of the Jewish people. This difference causes tension between the friends, and results in their split after Messala issues an ultimatum demanding that Judah deliver potential rebels amongst the populace to the Roman authorities.
During the parade for the new governor of Judea, Valerius Gratus (Mino Doro), loose tiles fall from the roof of Judah’s house. Gratus is thrown from his spooked horse and nearly killed. Although Messala knows this was an accident, he condemns Judah to the galleys and imprisons Miriam and Tirzah due to his residual anger at Judah for his refusal to help. Simonides confronts Messala, and is also unjustly imprisoned to keep him from speaking out. By punishing a known friend and prominent citizen, he hopes to intimidate the Jewish populace. Judah swears to take revenge on Messala. As he and other slaves are being marched to the galleys, they stop in Nazareth to water the Romans’ horses. Desperate with thirst, Judah begs for water, but the commander of the Roman detachment denies it to him. He collapses, but is revived when Jesus of Nazareth (Claude Heater) gives him water. After three years as a galley slave, Judah is assigned to the flagship of the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), who has been charged with destroying a fleet of Macedonian pirates. Arrius admires Judah’s determination and self-discipline, and offers to train him as a gladiator or charioteer. Judah declines the offer, declaring that God will aid him in his quest for vengeance. When the Roman fleet encounters the Macedonians, Arrius orders all the rowers except Judah to be chained to their oars. Arrius’ galley is rammed and sunk, but Judah unchains the other rowers and rescues Arrius. In despair, Arrius wrongly believes the battle ended in defeat and attempts to atone in the Roman way by falling on his sword, but Judah stops him. They are rescued, and Arrius is credited with the Roman fleet’s victory. Arrius successfully petitions Emperor Tiberius (George Relph) to free Judah, and adopts him as his son.
Another year passes. Wealthy again, Judah learns Roman ways and becomes a champion charioteer, but still longs for his family and homeland. Judah returns to Judea. Along the way, he meets Balthasar (Finlay Currie) and an Arab, Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith). After noting Judah’s prowess as a charioteer, the sheik asks him to drive his quadriga in a race before the new governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring). Judah declines, even after he learns that Messala will also compete. Judah returns to his home in Jerusalem. He finds Esther and Simonides, who made a new friend (Malak) in prison and was subsequently released. Judah learns Esther’s arranged marriage did not occur and that she is still in love with him. He visits Messala and demands his mother and sister’s freedom. The Romans discover that Miriam and Tirzah have contracted leprosy in prison, and expel them from the city. The women beg Esther to conceal their condition from Judah so that he may remember them as they were before, so she tells him that they died. This false revelation changes Judah’s mind, and he decides to seek vengeance on Messala by competing against him in the chariot race. During the chariot race, Messala drives a Greek style chariot with blades on the hubs to tear apart competing vehicles. He attempts to destroy Judah’s chariot but wrecks his own instead. Messala is dragged behind his horses and severely trampled on by another passing chariot, while Judah wins the race. Before dying, Messala awaits the arrival of Judah, and informs him that “the race is not over”. In one last act of pure hatred, he tells Judah to search for his family in the Valley of the Lepers.
Judah visits the nearby leper colony, where he confronts Esther while she is delivering supplies for his mother and sister. Esther convinces Judah to remain hidden from them for now and not break Miriam’s wishes. Blaming Roman rule for his family’s fate, Judah visits Pilate and rejects his patrimony and Roman citizenship. He returns with Esther to the leper colony, reveals himself to Miriam and finds out that Tirzah is dying. Judah and Esther take Miriam and her daughter to see Jesus of Nazareth, but the trial of Jesus has begun. As Jesus is being marched through the streets he collapses while carrying his cross. Judah recognizes him as the man who gave him water years before, and returns the gesture. Judah witnesses the crucifixion of Jesus, and Miriam and Tirzah are miraculously healed during the rainstorm following the crucifixion. Judah returns home a changed man and embraces Esther, Miriam and Tirzah.