During the reign of the emperor Tiberius, the Roman officer Messala arrives in Jerusalem as the new Tribune, head of the Roman garrison. Having spent much of his boyhood in Jerusalem while his father was provincial governor of Judea, Messala became close friends with Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince from a rich and influential family. On the night of his return, Messala is visited by Judah, and the two men warmly reminisce about happy times of their boyhood. Messala tells Judah that the emperor wants the recent rebelliousness of Judea crushed and asks for his help. Judah is uneasy with the request but, as he is against violence, agrees to speak with other influential Jews. The next day, Messala visits Judah, his mother Miriam and sister Tirzah. Messala gives Tirzah a beautiful brooch, and Judah presents Messala with a horse he has raised, but the men argue over Messala’s insistence that Judah tell him the names of Jewish leaders who will not denounce rebellion. Judah refuses, severing their friendship. That night, Simonides, the faithful steward of the house of Hur, returns from Antioch with good news of the family's increasing wealth. He asks for permission for his daughter Esther to marry a free man, and says that she wants to ask Judah personally for permission. Judah is attracted to Esther, whom he has not seen since childhood, and grants permission, saying her freedom will be his wedding gift, even though he knows that she is marrying only because her father wishes it. Later that night, when Judah and Esther are alone, they exchange a passionate kiss. Judah then takes Esther's slave ring and promises to wear it until he meets the woman he will marry. The next day, Gratus, the new governor, arrives to a cold reception by the people of Jerusalem. As Judah and Tirzah watch his procession from the roof of their house, Tirzah leans against some tiles and accidentally loosens them, causing them to fall just as Gratus is passing. After he is thrown from his horse and knocked unconscious, Roman soldiers storm the house. As they enter the courtyard, Judah tells Tirzah and Miriam to say nothing, then tries to reason with the soldiers, pleading that it was an accident. When Messala suddenly appears at the courtyard entrance, Judah appeals to him, but Messala coldly watches as Judah, Tirzah and Miriam are taken away. After their arrest, Messala goes to the roof and sees the loose tiles, confirming that Judah had been telling the truth, but says nothing. Soon guards go to Judah's cell to tell him that he is being sent to the seaport of Tyrus, which Judah knows means imprisonment as a galley slave. He overpowers the guards and escapes into the garrison, then steals a spear and breaks into Messala's quarters. After Messala orders his guards to leave them, Judah demands to know what has happened to Miriam and Tirzah. Messala tells him that Gratus will recover but they will be punished for their crime. Judah does not understand why Messala would let this happen, especially after Messala admits that he knows the truth. Judah begs for mercy, but Messala rebuffs him, saying that the people now will fear him, and warning if Judah kills him, Tirzah and Miriam will be crucified before his eyes. Defeated, Judah has no choice but to let the guards take him away as he asks God to grant him vengeance. Days later, as Judah and other chained prisoners, weakened by thirst and exhaustion, enter the town of Nazareth, townspeople offer them water, but the Roman guard stops a woman who tries to give some to Judah. In despair, Judah falls to the ground and implores God to help him. At that moment, a carpenter, who has seen his plight, approaches, gives him water and bathes his face and hands. The guard then tries to stop the carpenter but strangely acquiesces when he looks into the man's face. Judah also gazes in awe at the young Nazarene, not understanding why he has offered help. Three years later, Judah is rower 41 in a Roman galley. On the day that Roman Consul Quintus Arrius takes command of the vessel, Arrius goes below to survey the rowers. Sensing both strength and hatred in 41, Arrius deliberately taunts him by lashing him, and later observes his reaction when the men are submitted to a grueling test of endurance to increase their rowing speed. Later, Judah is ordered to Arrius' quarters, where the consul offers him the chance to leave the galley and become a charioteer or gladiator. Judah declines, saying that he has not died because God does not want it so. Soon a fleet of Macedonian ships is sighted and the galley prepares for battle. Prior to the start of the fighting, Arrius orders a subordinate to chain and lock the rowers' shackles to their posts, but leave 41's unlocked. During the battle, when their galley is rammed, the rowers are trapped until Judah kills their guard, takes his keys and unlocks the others. He then goes on deck, where he throws a spear at an enemy soldier who has attacked Arrius and forced him into the water. Judah dives after Arrius and pulls him to safety on some floating debris that serves as a raft. When Arrius realizes that his ship is sinking, he tries to kill himself with his own knife, but Judah stops him. The next morning, the two men are alone in the sea, with no ships in sight. Arrius asks to know 41's name and wonders why he saved his life. Moments later, they see a ship in the distance and realize that it is Roman. When they are brought onboard, Arrius shocks the captain by giving Judah water before he himself drinks. He then learns that, although five galleys were lost in the battle, the Romans were victorious. Arrius then takes Judah's arm, and leads him off, past the rowers’ hole. Some time later, Arrius is hailed in a procession through the streets of Rome, accompanied by Judah, who rides in his chariot. When the emperor awards Arrius with the baton of victory, he inquires about Judah and agrees to meet with Arrius to discuss his situation. The next day, the emperor gives Judah to Arrius, to be his slave. Months later, Judah has ridden Arrius' chariot to victory five times in the Roman arena, bringing him fame and admiration throughout Rome. At a celebration banquet, Arrius announces that he is adopting Judah as his heir, replacing the son who had died. When Arrius and Judah, who accepts his new name as Young Quintus Arrius, speak privately, Judah tells Arrius of his affection and gratitude, and accepts his signet ring, but reveals that he must return to Judea to find his mother and sister. On his way to Jerusalem, Judah stops at an oasis, where an old man, Balthasar of Alexandria, thinks that he may be the man whom he saw as a baby in a stable in Bethlehem. Balthasar soon realizes that Judah is not that man, but the two strike up a friendship. Balthasar introduces Judah to Sheik Ilderim, a wealthy Arab who cherishes his magnificent team of white chariot horses. Judah observes the team and admires them, but over dinner in Ilderim’s tent, refuses his suggestion that he drive the team for him in the arena. Judah is intrigued, though, when Ilderim expresses his hope to humiliate the arrogant Messala by a victory over his chariot and adds that, in the arena, there is no law. When Judah arrives at his family’s now-decaying home in Jerusalem, he is surprised to see Esther, who never married but returned to the house with Simonides after he, who was also imprisoned, was released. Simonides, who was crippled and blinded under torture, proudly tells Judah that his fortune is safely hidden. Later, Judah and Esther kiss and reveal their feelings for each other, but Esther worries that Judah is consumed with hate and tells him of a young Nazarene she has heard of who preaches of love. The next day, Messala receives the gift of an expensive knife from Quintus Arrius, the younger. Messala is shocked when the man is revealed to be Judah, who shows him the seal from Arrius’ signet ring. Judah then tells Messala if Miriam and Tirzah are restored to him, he will forget what has happened, and says that he will return the next day. Shaken by Judah’s appearance, Messala tells his underling Drusus to go to the prison and find out what has happened to the women. In the lowest level of the prison, Drusus discovers that the women, who had not been seen in years, are now lepers. Fearful of the disease, the guards order the women taken to the edge of the city and the contents of their cell burned. Late that night, Miriam and Tirzah, covering their deformities in rags, go to their home. Although they merely want to look at it, Esther hears them. The women refuse to let her approach, and when Esther reveals that Judah is not dead, but in Jerusalem, Miriam makes her promise to tell him that they have died in prison. When Esther later tells Judah what Miriam had asked, his bitterness and despair frighten her, and she implores him not to be consumed with hatred. Judah will not listen, though, and leaves, determined to find a means of revenge against Messala. [An intermission divides the story at this point.]
Soon Ilderim goes to Messala’s home, offers a wager of a trunk filled with gold and silver and asks him and his companions for odds on an upcoming chariot race. When Messala hears that his opponent will be Judah, he accepts the wager at four to one, calling it the difference between a Roman and a Jew--or an Arab. On the day of the race, Pontius Pilate, an old friend of Arrius, who has become the new governor of Judea, oversees the race. Ilderim is optimistic, and happy that Judah has earned his horses’ affection, but worries when he sees that Messala’s chariot has spiked wheels and warns Judah. During the nine-lap race, Messala uses the blades on his wheels to destroy many chariots, and several of the other charioteers are killed or maimed. Messala tries to destroy Judah’s chariot, but instead crashes his own and is dragged by his team. Judah wins the race and is crowned victorious by Pilate, who calls him the crowd’s current god when the Judeans cheer loudly for him. After the race, Messala, who is in agony, will not allow the physician to amputate his mutilated legs until after Judah, whom he has summoned, arrives. Rather than seeking forgiveness, as Messala dies, he taunts Judah by revealing that Tirzah and Miriam are not dead but living in the valley of the lepers. In despair, Judah goes to the valley to find his mother and sister, ignoring the fear of contagion. As he searches, he is stunned to see Esther and Malluch, the mute who takes care of Simonides, bringing baskets of food down to the lepers’ caves. Judah angrily confronts Esther for her deception and demands to see Miriam and Tirzah, but she pleads that they would be shattered if he saw what has become of them. When Miriam and Tirzah weakly call for Esther, Judah hides as Esther gives them food, and weeps when he hears his mother ask if he is well and happy. Although still unconvinced by Esther’s pleas to remain hidden, Judah nonetheless leaves with her and Malluch. On their way back to the city, they see a crowd gathering on a mountain top. Balthasar, who is in the crowd, calls out to Judah, saying that the Nazarene who will speak is the one he sought, and that he is the son of God. Although Judah momentarily thinks of the Nazarene who had given him water, he scoffs at the remark and returns to the city alone. Judah is then summoned by Pilate, who greets him warmly as the son of his old friend, and delivers the message that he has been granted Roman citizenship. Though expressing his affection for Arrius, Judah rejects the citizenship and gives Arrius’ ring to Pilate to return, saying that Rome turned Messala into what he became. When Judah returns home, Esther tells him of the words of love and forgiveness she heard from the Nazarene, but Judah will not listen. The next day, Esther returns to the valley of the lepers, followed at a distance by Judah. When Miriam approaches she reveals that Tirzah is dying. As Esther tells Miriam of the Nazarene’s words and says that she wants to take them to him, Judah comes forward. Miriam tries to make Judah go away by showing him her deformed face, but Judah strokes her forehead and embraces her. He then carries Tirzah from the cave and, with Miriam and Esther, walks back to Jerusalem. The city is almost deserted when they arrive. People shun the lepers, but an old blind man tells them that people are gathered for the trial of the Nazarene. They then walk to the center of the city and observe Pilate washing his hands of the man, who is sentenced to death. Seeing the Nazarene's tortured body, the women weep, but Judah suddenly recognizes him. Judah then follows his journey to the crucifixion site, and when the Nazarene stumbles under the weight of his cross, offers him water. As the women sadly return to the valley of the lepers, Judah continues to follow the Nazarene. When Judah sees Balthasar, he relates what happened in Nazareth and wonders what the man has done to deserve this, but Balthasar says that he came into the world for this purpose. As the Nazarene dies, the skies darken and a storm rages. Outside the city, Miriam, Tirzah and Esther have taken cover. Tirzah says that she is no longer afraid, and Miriam sadly says, “His life is over.” Suddenly, through lightning flashes, Esther sees that Miriam and Tirzah no longer bear the deformities of leprosy. That night, when Judah returns home, he embraces Esther and relates that, even near death, the Nazarene sought forgiveness for those who caused his suffering. Esther then shows him that Miriam and Esther have been cured and the four lovingly embrace.