33 A.D., Jerusalem
A crowd is gathered for a chariot race. Among the riders are Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his adopted brother Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell). As they prepare to ride, the two challenge each other before riding off.
Eight years earlier, Judah and Messala were very close. Judah is a Jew while Messala was born a Roman. They are seen racing their horses together, until Judah's horse throws him off and injures him. Messala carries Judah back home. Their mother Naomi (Ayelet Zurer) is displeased with their actions. Judah's sister Tirzah (Sofia Black-D'Elia) is in love with Messala, and he feels the same, but Naomi doesn't approve of them being together.
The Zealots are plotting against the Romans. As this happens, Judah meets Jesus of Nazareth (Rodrigo Santoro). Jesus spreads a message of compassion and forgiveness. Judah also meets a woman named Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) and falls in love with her.
Messala runs off to join the Roman army without saying goodbye to Judah. Over the next three years, Judah writes to his brother and tells how Esther was set to marry another man, and Judah was about to let her go, but he ran after her and managed to get her back. They have since been married.
Judah and Messala reunite. Messala, now a Roman tribune, talks about meeting Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek) and being influenced by his message and ideals, some of which Judah disagrees with.
A Zealot named Dismas (Moises Arias) is taken in after being wounded. He wants to get back at the Romans for murdering his family, but Judah encourages him not to seek revenge.
As the Romans are marching through the city, Dismas fires an arrow that almost strikes Messala. The boy runs away, but the Romans storm the palace and forcefully hold down Judah, Naomi, and Tirzah. As Pilate demands to know who fired the arrow, he threatens to have the family killed, but Judah takes the blame for the crime. Judah is separated from his mother and sister. He is subjected to cruel treatment. Jesus finds him weak and in need of water, so he brings him a small bowl so he may have something to drink.
Five years later, Judah has been a slave for the Romans. We see him rowing in a ship along with dozens of other slaves. The ship is attacked by an enemy when their ship rams into the Romans'. The Romans attempt to fight back, but their forces are brought down, and the ship is sunk, killing everyone on board except for Judah. He floats for days on the ocean until he washes up on the shores.
Judah is found by Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman) and brought to his camp. He learns that Judah is a slave, and he may be of some value. When Ilderim's horses run loose, it is Judah that manages to rein them in.
Ilderim then plans to have Judah compete alongside Messala in the chariot race to reclaim his honor.
Judah makes it back to his home in secrecy. He reunites with Esther after so long. She informs him that his mother and sister are both dead. Judah later confronts Messala in his quarters and punches him. Judah flees as Messala's guards come in.
Judah encounters a former Roman captain named Druses (Marwan Kenzari), whom Judah had held with a knife to his throat on the day that he was captured. Now that Druses has no place in Messala's army, he informs Judah that Naomi and Tirzah are, in fact, still alive, but kept imprisoned somewhere.
Druses brings Judah to the location of his mother and sister. The two of them are hiding, covering their faces with rags. They have both been facially disfigured, and they blame Judah for abandoning them and allowing them to succumb to a fate worse than death. Judah leaves in shame.
Ilderim approaches Messala and offers to have his man race against him. While he does not give Messala a name, he knows who Ilderim is referring to.
Hundreds gather for the chariot race. Judah and Messala prepare themselves alongside the other racers. The race commences, and immediately, several men and horses are taken out as the chariots collide and cause the racers to crash and get trampled. Others are struck against the walls as they try to steer. Eventually, it is down to Judah and Messala. Judah nearly falls off his chariot, but he holds on for dear life. Messala gets close enough to try and kill Judah, but his chariot hits a bump and he flips over and crashes. Judah wins the race and is cheered on, while the Romans carry an unconscious Messala away.
Jesus is later set to be crucified. Judah sees him bleeding and weakened as he carries the cross. He tries to offer Jesus some water but is whipped as a result. Jesus appreciates the gesture but assures Judah he can continue on his own. Jesus is then put up on the cross between two other men, one of whom is Dismas. The boy asks for forgiveness and for entrance into God's kingdom. Jesus says it is already done. He says some final words as he knows his time is over. Jesus dies, and the earth trembles. Judah weeps and mourns his death. The rain begins to fall, which somehow manages to cure Naomi and Tirzah of their deformities.
Judah finds Messala lying down, missing the bottom half of his right leg. Messala swears vengeance on Judah for disfiguring him while holding his blade up. Judah instead decides to forgive Messala and embraces him. Messala drops his weapon and tearfully hugs Judah. The two are later reunited with Naomi and Tirzah, both of them also forgiving Messala.
The film concludes with Judah and Messala riding their horses together.