As a child and young man, Judah Ben-Hur was friends with Messala, the son of the Roman Governor of Judea. Eventually Messala went to Rome for a military career, while Ben-Hur remained in Jerusalem and became head of the House of Hur after his father's passing.
Approximately 26 years after the birth of Jesus Christ, Messala returned to Judea, as part of a plan by the Emperor to make Judea into a more disciplined and ordered province of the Empire. Upon hearing the news Ben-Hur traveled to the military garrison to meet Messala. Messala was delighted when his old friend came to see him, and ordered a solider to treat him with the respect due a Jewish Prince - telling the soldier that Judea was his country before it fell to the Romans.
However the good feelings were not to last. Messala and Hur had a falling out as the two men developed very different views of the Empire in the intervening years. Messala believed firmly in the power and glory of the Empire, and Hur was equally dedicated to the Jewish faith and the freedom of his people. The two parted ways in anger.
During this time Simonides and his daughter Esther also came to see Hur. Simonides needed to give an accounting of his work as steward for the House of Her, and Esther wanted permission to marry a young man in Antioch.
A short time later, during the arrival of the new Roman Governor Valerius Gratus, Ben-Hur's sister Tirzah went to watch the Governor's entrance from the roof of the house. While up there she dislodged some roof tiles, which fell by the horse carrying Gratus. Startled, the horse threw Gratus, injuring the man. Messala and Roman troops enter Hur's home and took the family prisoner. Messala goes up on the roof and discovers that it was indeed an accident, that a number of tiles were loose on the roof. Despite this knowledge, Messala decided to declare Hur and his family guilty of attacking the Governor - stating that to condemn an old friend would help to raise his stature and make him feared. Hur is sent to the galleys, an almost certain death sentence, while Hur's mother and sister Tirzah are imprisoned.
Hur managed to briefly escape and confronted Messala over his knowledge that the family was innocent. He threatened to kill Messala but backed down when Messala told him that it would result in the death of Ben-Hur's mother and sister. Before being led away Ben-Hur told Messala that he would pray Messala lived long enough for Ben-Hur to return and seek revenge. Messala was dismissive that Hur would survive to do that.
On the forced march across the desert thirst and exhaustion nearly killed Hur. When the soldiers guarding Ben-Hur and the other prisoners stopped to rest in Nazareth they specifically ordered that Ben-Hur not receive any water. However Jesus would not have that, and gave Ben-Hur some water. A Roman centurion was about to object when Jesus stood up and stared at him. After a couple seconds the Roman backed away, unsure of what happened but knowing that he didn't want to mess with this young man.
Hur manages to survive the next three years on the galley. In a critical battle Hur saved the life of the Roman Counsel Quintus Arrius. Arrius became convinced that the young man is innocent of trying to kill the Governor. In gratitude Arrius petitions the Emperor and the Senate to drop the charges, but the Emperor and the Senate would not free Hur outright. What they did however is to give Hur to Arrius as his slave. Arrius then frees Hur, and adopts him as his son. Despite his new found wealth and status in the Empire, Hur longs for home, and with the blessing of Arrius departs for Judea.
Arriving in Judea, Ben-Hur met Balthazar of Alexandria, one of the Magi who visited Christ shortly after his birth. He also met Shiek Ilderim, an Arabic shiek who brought his horses to race in the circus.
Arriving in Jerusalem Ben-Hur went to see Messala and demands the release of his mother and sister. He told Messala that if his mother and sister are restored to him Hur will forgo that vengeance he swore he would take against Messala with every stroke of the galley oar he was chained to. Messala tries to stall him by saying that he needs the approval of Gratus to do so, Hur tells him to get that approval by the next day.
Returning to the family estate Hur found Esther, Simonides, and Malluch living in the house. Esther revealed to Hur that the marriage was called off since she was forced to remain in Jerusalem.
Meanwhile Messala's aide was sent to the prison to free the women, but it is found that the two women have contracted leporsy during their long stay. They are freed and the cell is burned out. The two women return to their house one last time, and tell Esther to tell Hur that his mother and sister are dead, not wanting Hur to see them in their current condition, and knowing that under Mosaic law he would have to reject them now. Esther makes up a story that she had seen the bodies of Tirzah and Hur's mother shortly after their initial imprisonment, and Hur storms off in anger.
Hur realizes that the only way to get even with Messala is to enter a chariot race with him. He agrees to drive Sheik Ilderim's horses in the race. During the race Messala races with a "Pict Chariot" - a chariot fitted with blades on the hubs. Messala is able to use these blades to destroy a couple chariots and force their riders out of the race. When he tries to the same with Hur's chariot, the plan backfires and it is Messala's chariot that is destroyed. Messala is thrown from the chariot, dragged along the ground, and then trampled by another team of horses.
Messala refuses to allow doctors to operate upon him until Ben-Hur comes to see him. Hur does come to see him in the final moments, and before he dies Messala tells Hur that his mother and sister are alive and in the Valley of the Lepers.
After Messala's death, Hur comes to believe that Messala was once a good person who had been corrupted by Rome. As a result he turns against the Roman Empire, asking his adoptive father's friend Pontius Pilate to return a ring to his adoptive father. Pilate warned Hur that as the hand of Caesar it was his duty to crush all enemies of Rome, and that he best leave Judea.
Both Balthazar and Hur's love interest Esther attempted to console Hur, imploring him to come listen to a certain young rabbi who was teaching in the area. Hur rebuffed them both.
Hur found his sister and mother in the Valley of the Lepers. By then Tirzah was dying of leprosy. Taking his mother and sister Hur set out to find Jesus in the hopes that he could heal them from the disease. However by then Jesus has been arrested and had just been condemned to death by Pilate. When bystanders see the ill Miriam and Tirzah they react violently, throwing objects at them to force them away.
At the march to Calvary Hur gets a clear look at Jesus and realizes it was the same man who showed kindness to him as he was being marched to the gallies. Hur attempted to repay the kindness by offering Jesus water but a Roman soldier kicked the water away before Jesus could drink the water.
Ben-Hur followed the procession to Calvary and was one of the many people to witness the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. In the moments before Jesus died he shared a vision with Ben-Hur to convince the young man that it was his will that this all happen and that Ben-Hur allow the crucifixion to proceed. As Jesus said, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do" Ben-Hur felt the dying man's voice taking the sword of anger and hatred out of his hand.
At the moment Jesus died both Miriam and Tirzah were cured of their leprosy. They returned to the Hur estate and were joyfully reunited with Judah Ben-Hur.
In the original novel, one of the chief differences is that Messla does not die in the chariot race. Instead, an attempt to sabotage Hur's chariot leads to the destruction of his own chariot, and Messala is seriously injured in the race. Crippled from his injuries, he is also left in serious financial difficulty due to the bets he had made regarding the outcome of the race. His plans to murder Ben-Hur all go awry, and five years after the race Messala himself is killed by his mistress Iras.
In the novel, Ben-Hur married Esther and had children. Five years after the crucifixion of Jesus the family was living in a villa located in Misenum - a town in Italy on the Gulf of Naples. Iras visited the villa to inform the Hur family that she had slew Messala before departing, ostensibly to commit suicide.
The novel ends during the tenth year of Nero's reign. Visiting Simonides in Antioch Ben-Hur and his family learn of the suffering of their fellow Christians at the hands of Nero, and decided to leave to ensure that the light does not go out in the capital. Arriving in Rome, Hur gave his fortune to help construct the Catacomb of Callixtus and an underground church within the catacombs.