Karl Tunberg got the script after numerous re-writes and stripped out a good deal of material that had been in the novel, including a substantial chunk of material that follows the fate of the characters after the Crucifixion.
Wyler intensely disliked Tunberg’s dialog, which he felt was too modern, and so he hired Gore Vidal to re-do the dialog. In 1995, Vidal famously claimed that he felt that the dynamic between Judah and Messala only made sense if the two men had once been lovers and that Messala was hoping to get back together with Judah but felt rejected after Judah spurned his advances. According to Vidal, he persuaded Wyler to accept his reading, and told Stephen Boyd, who was playing Messala, to play the scenes that way, but did not tell Heston. When the notoriously conservative Heston learned about Vidal’s claim, he vehemently denied it, but if Vidal’s story is true, Heston wouldn’t have known about it. …
Regardless of whether Vidal added a homoerotic subtext or not, the film made other changes to the novel. Wallace’s novel is unabashed in its treatment of Christianity being superior to Judaism; the major Jewish characters mostly wind up converting to Christianity after all. Wyler’s version, which was made about a decade after the establishment of the modern state of Israel, was more respectful to Judaism. Jesus’ face is not shown and the actor who played him was not given any lines. Although the ending strongly hints at Ben-Hur’s conversion, it doesn’t make it explicit.
In 2003, Charleton Heston reprised his role in an animated version of the story, produced by his own production company. This version returns to Wallace’ approach to the religious issue. Jesus (voiced by Scott McNeill) is seen and given dialog. Ben-Hur’s sister and mother are both miraculously healed of leprosy, and Messala is miraculously cured of the injured leg he received in the chariot race. Mary Magdalene witnesses Jesus’ resurrection and ascent into Heaven, and the film closes with Judah teaching his children to be Christians.
~ Ben-Hur: A Long History, An Historian Goes to the Movies
I spent sleepless nights trying to find a way to deal with the figure of Christ. It was a frightening thing when all the great painters of twenty centuries have painted events you have to deal with, events in the life of the best-known man who ever lived. Everyone already has his own concept of him. I wanted to be reverent, and yet realistic. Crucifixion is a bloody, awful, horrible thing, and a man does not go through it with a benign expression on his face. I had to deal with that. It is a very challenging thing to do that and get no complaints from anybody.
–Wyler on the difficulty of shooting the crucifixion scene.
~ Wikipedia citing A Talent For Trouble: The Life Of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler, Jan Herman Da Capo Press (August 22, 1997), p. 410