'Ben Hur' starts out with the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, and the arrival of the Magi to worship Him. It then swiftly skips ahead a couple of decades to Jerusalem and the life of Judah Ben Hur, a wealthy Jewish prince and businessman. As the story picks up, the new commander of the Roman garrison at Jerusalem- Messala- arrives to take over his command. The centurion he's replacing warns him that Israel is not an easy region to govern, but Messala tells him that he requested the assignment. His father used to command there and he wished to return to make his name and fortune.
Outside the Hur home, the city is in political turmoil. Israel, having been conquered by Rome, is now feeling the weight of its oppression. The latest outrage is the announcement that their Jewish spiritual leader has been removed from office and is being replaced with a Roman one- Governor Gratus. Because of this, anger is running high in the capital. When Gratus arrives, he is met by an honor guard of Roman soldiers led by Messala. As they make their way through the streets, the faces of the watching townspeople reflect their resentment of their Roman overlords.
After being in a cell for several days, soldiers arrive to tell Ben Hur that he's been found guilty (sans trial) and been sentenced to be a galley slave- a rower on a Roman warship- which is essentially a death sentence. With the strength of desperation, he wrests himself free of his guards and makes his way to Messala's chambers, armed with a javelin. He demands the release of his mother and sister. Messala refuses, saying they will be sentenced as well. Ben Hur pleads with Messala, swearing he didn't try to kill the governor. His angry confusion, however, turns to burning rage when Messala coolly admits he knows the truth and it doesn't matter- he's going to use the situation for political and personal gain. Ben Hur raises the javelin to kill Messala, but surrenders when Messala tells him his mother and sister will be crucified if he does it. As the soldiers drag him away, Ben Hur vows to Messala that he will come back, asking God to grant him vengeance.
Ben Hur returns to his old home, which was sealed up by Gratus after his arrest. To his surprise, he finds Simonides and Esther in residence (cue the tender reunion scene). They never returned to Antioch, because Gratus had had Simonides seized and tortured in hopes of getting him to reveal where the Hur money was. Though crippled by the torture, Simonides refused to reveal anything, so most of the Ben Hur's fortune is still intact. Simonides tells him he can use it to destroy the Romans, but Ben Hur tells him he just wants to locate his mother and sister. To that end, he goes to see Messala.
The guards break into the cell, then recoil in horror: the two women have contracted leprosy.
Since lepers are not allowed to be in the city, they are released. Before they exit the city walls, they go by their old home, where they are discovered by Esther. She tells them that Ben Hur is alive and is looking for them. They make her promise not to tell him about them, as they know he would seek them out, risking catching leprosy from them. Esther agrees, and after they leave, lies to Ben Hur, telling him that, while she was waiting for her father to be released by Gratus, she had seen the bodies of his mother and Tirzah. Filled with grief and rage, Ben Hur storms out into the night, nothing left to hope for except vengeance.