Jesus on trial: What would a modern jury do?
April 22nd, 2011
07:18 AM ET

Jesus on trial: What would a modern jury do?

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Richmond, Virginia (CNN) - If Jesus were tried in Richmond, Virginia, today, would he have been sentenced to death? Or would he have faced life behind bars with no chance for parole?

That’s the choice given to jurors here recently.

During Lent, the Church of the Holy Comforter used Virginia law to retry the sentencing phase of the blasphemy case against Jesus of Nazareth. Church members and guests played the role of the jury.

The trial was the brainchild of Mark Osler, a former U.S. Attorney in Detroit who teaches at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis and is friends with a member of the Richmond church.

Osler wanted to hold the trial in part to call attention to the state’s use of capital punishment. Virginia is second only to Texas in the number of executions per state since the mid-1970s, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty, according to federal statistics. He held a similar event in Texas a few years ago.

“For many of us our faith, as it relates to policy especially, is often unexamined,” Osler said “We’re surrounded by people who feel the same way, and what we need to do is have it be troubled at least and see if that takes us someplace different.”

The mock sentencing phase was held the night before Palm Sunday.

Osler played the part of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest in the biblical narrative of the trial. In that account, Jesus had no defense council. But on this night, Osler faced off against Jeanne Bishop, a real-life public defender from Chicago.

“Jesus was indigent,” Bishop said. “And so I think [Osler] wanted a public defender to underscore the point that this is a man with no money, no resources, no position in society.

“Most of the people that I represent fit that description.”

“He also wanted to have a young African-American man play Jesus, and that’s what we have tonight. Most of clients look exactly like this young man who will be sitting beside me,” she said.

The night was bittersweet for Bishop. “My younger sister, her husband and their unborn baby were murdered 21 years ago today, the day before palm Sunday.”

In 1990, Nancy Bishop Langert was killed during a home invasion in Winnetka, Illinois. Her death was part of the reason Jeanne Bishop became a defense attorney and an outspoken opponent of the death penalty.

Even before her sister’s murder, Bishop said, she was against the death penalty. “When my sister and her husband and their baby were killed, my immediate response was, ‘No more killing, no more bloodshed, please let it stop right here.’”

Jeanne Bishop questions a witness at the trial of Jesus in Richmond, Virginia

Osler is also against the death penalty. It was a decision he said he reached as a prosecutor while sitting in church one Sunday.

“They read John 8, about stoning the adulteress, and I’m like everyone else - when I hear a story like that, I put myself in the role of Jesus. A lot of prosecutors who are Christians who talk about that will say, ‘Jesus said go and sin no more.’ And what I came to eventually is, ‘I’m not Jesus. I’m part of the mob. I’m somebody with a stone in my hand.’

“I think that story is very direct that we don’t have the moral authority” to execute prisoners, Osler said.

Playing the role of prosecutor and asking jurors to condemn Jesus to death was difficult for Osler.

“It’s very dark to have the prosecutor in me go to war with the faith [in me]. There’s a cynicism you need to be a good prosecutor,” he said. “It’s been in some ways a troubling enterprise, and I didn’t see that coming.”

“We don’t have a script,” Osler said shortly before taking the stage at the Church of the Holy Comforter. “We’re approaching this the way trial lawyers would. I haven’t known what her theory of the case is or what her arguments will be, and she doesn’t know mine. That’s the way it really works. It’s not a play. It really is a trial in that sense.”

Mark Osler waits to take the stage at the trial of Jesus

As the audience took their seats, Bishop leaned over and whispered to her client, a teenager from the church who sat beside her in a dark blazer and khaki pants.

William G. Broaddus played the role of the judge. He was Virginia’s attorney general for six months after his predecessor stepped down to run for governor. During that time, five defendants were executed in Virginia.

“We will now call the case of the Commonwealth of Virginia versus Jesus of Nazareth,” Broaddus bellowed from the pulpit. “I will remind you this man has already been found guilty of the criminal charge of blasphemy.

“Tonight it is your duty to determine the proper punishment,” he told the jurors.

The attorneys each called two witnesses. The prosecution called Peter, one of Jesus closest disciples, and a rich young ruler whom Jesus urged to sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor, here though the witness was played by a woman from the congregation. The defense called a centurion whose slave Jesus had healed, as well as Malchus, a high priest's slave whose ear was cut off by Peter then reattached by Jesus.

The sentencing trial followed the rhythms of a standard criminal case. Bishop spoke gently yet firmly as she questioned the witnesses, her line of questioning seeking to emphasize Jesus' acts of compassion and mercy.

Osler was forceful and tried to paint Jesus as a rebel who sought to rend the fabric of society. He also played heavily on the issue of slavery in his questioning.

Richmond was an international slave port prior to the Civil War - a fact not lost on members of the audience, who quietly bristled or frowned when Osler brought it up. He repeatedly reminded them that while Jesus healed the centurion and high priest’s slaves, he did not set them free.

In her closing argument, Bishop told the jury that Jesus loved his enemies. “A man who showed such compassion is at least deserving of your compassion at this moment,” she said.

Osler rebutted that Jesus had “poked a hole in the fabric of society. Are you going to let it tear or are your going to keep it a small hole?” he asked as he tore a hole in his own pressed, white button-down shirt to gasps in the crowd.

After the closing arguments, the audience broke into several juries of 12. Following the Virginia state statutes, they had two votes to consider. First: “Do you find that there is a probability that, if not executed, the defendant would commit criminal acts that would constitute a continuing serious threat to society?”

If they answered yes to that question, they were instructed to move on to the second: “In the light of all mitigation, is a death sentence warranted?” Both questions required a unanimous vote.

In one of the juries, 11 members quickly agreed the answer to the first question was yes, but there was one holdout. The other jury members began to press her in favor of the prosecution. Eventually they were successful.

“I think he's convincing," an older woman on the panel said of Osler, adding, “I didn't like myself for thinking that."

As the judge told the crowd they had just five minutes left to deliberate, the noise in the sanctuary grew louder and more heated.

The votes were taken and the jury forms passed forward.

The judge stepped forward and read the verdict.

“Jesus please stand,” he said.

He read the first question aloud and said, “The majority of the juries have found that should be answered in the affirmative.”

It meant the juries thought Jesus would blaspheme again if not executed.

“Turning then to the next question,” he said. “The majority of the juries voting on that issue found that the death sentence is not warranted.”

There was applause from the audience.

“The defendant is remanded to the jailer for the rest of your natural life.”

And with that the trial ended.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Christianity • Church • Episcopal • United States

soundoff (1,632 Responses)
  1. Martin Musatov

    1Behold, the day of the LORD cometh, and thy spoil shall be divided in the midst of thee.

    2For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled, and the women ravished; and half of the city shall go forth into captivity, and the residue of the people shall not be cut off from the city.

    September 1, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  2. Martin Musatov

    That is to say there is no blasphemy law so he could not be sentenced.

    September 1, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  3. Martin Musatov

    The state of Virginia has no blasphemy so Jesus could not be sentenced.

    September 1, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  4. Chris

    We will all live for an eternity in either heaven or hell. Despite what you might believe, The Bible makes it pretty clear that hell will be a place of unquenchable torment and suffering. What an awful fate for anyone! I only want to see as many people aviod this destination as possible. I know people will mock this, and say I'm simplistic, and narrow minded, and all kinds of other nasty things, but that's ok. I can only speak what I know to be true, and you have the right to accept it or reject it. Read John 3:36 which says: He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him. It's that simple. Or, if you want to know how simple it is, consider the theif on the cross next to Jesus. You can read Luke 23:42-43. 42. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.
    43. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. This is the thief on the cross speaking to Jesus, and Jesus replies to him, and he is saved and will be in Heaven. Here he was, on a cross next to Jesus, and he could do nothing, and he didn't even say that much, but Jesus knew his heart. .....for the LORD searches all hearts, and understands
    every plan and thought. If you seek Him, He will be
    found by you; but if you forsake Him, he will cast you
    off for ever." (1 Chronicles 28:9)
    If you don't know Jesus as Lord, but would like to know more, the easiest was is to read The Bible. If you don't have a Bible, you can read it online. I would recommend the gospel of John to start with in the New Testament if you don't know where to start. Or, seek out a Bible believing church or talk to someone you know is a Christian, as I can guarantee they would love to share what Christ has done for them and let you know how He can change your life

    June 28, 2011 at 2:00 am |
  5. upstateBill

    Look at the face of that statue, if that the face of a straight guy..

    June 23, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  6. cghearn

    This is a fools game. If He would have been put on trial today, He still would have been put to death and raised from the dead. He didn't die because people hated Him, He died because He laid down His life to be a payment for our souls.

    "No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father." John 10:18

    June 17, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • The Author

      Us too...

      February 23, 2013 at 5:35 am |
  7. YANKO


    June 9, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  8. James Black


    June 2, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
  9. Alex

    Idiocy! THis was a blatant Publicity Stunt!

    May 23, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • Martin Musatov

      Publicity for who?

      September 1, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  10. lfcreek

    Put Mohamed on trial

    May 22, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  11. Guest

    Don't use the name of the lord in vein

    May 18, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
  12. Guest

    Dont use the name of the lord in vein.

    May 18, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  13. David

    They shouldn't have punished Jesus for the sins of his father.

    May 17, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
    • Martin Musatov

      And what are these?

      September 1, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • The Author

      These are the sins of Martin Musatov, these are the sins of his father, I committed these sins these sins are mine and I take

      February 23, 2013 at 5:37 am |
  14. Anotherdayjustbelieve


    May 16, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • David

      He was clearly an instigator, or haven't you read the Bible?

      May 17, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
  15. Karin

    This guy is a criminal!!!

    Nahum 1:2-8
    Nahum 2:2-10
    Zephaniah 3:6-10
    I Chronicles 20:3
    I Chronicles 21:12
    I Chronicles 21:14
    II Chronicles 14:9
    II Chronicles 15:12-13
    I Kings 13:1-2
    II Kings 23:20-25
    Deuteronomy 13:13-19
    Exodus 13:2
    Ezekiel 21:33-37
    Genesis 22:1-18
    Leviticus 27:28-29
    Joshua 7:15
    Judges 11:29-40
    Wisdom 3:5-7 (Catholic Version)
    Wisdom 14:21-23 (Catholic Version)
    I Kings 14:9-16
    I Kings 18:36-40
    I Kings 20:35-36
    II Kings 2:23-24
    II Kings 19:35
    I Samuel 6:19-20
    I Samuel 15:2-3
    II Samuel 6:3-7
    II Samuel 12:31
    Acts 5:1-11
    Deuteronomy 2:34
    Deuteronomy 3:6-7
    Deuteronomy 12:2-3
    Deuteronomy 13:1-6
    Deuteronomy 13:7-12
    Deuteronomy 13:13-19
    Deuteronomy 17:12
    Deuteronomy 17:2-5
    Deuteronomy 18:20-22
    Deuteronomy 22:20-21
    Exodus 12:29-30
    Exodus 21:15
    Exodus 22:17
    Exodus 22:19
    Exodus 23:23
    Exodus 31:12-15
    Exodus 32:26-29
    Ezekiel 9:5-7
    Ezekiel 35:7-9
    Genesis 9:5-6
    Hosea 9:11-16
    Isaiah 13:15-18
    Isaiah 14:21
    Isaiah 21:9
    Jeremiah 15:1-4
    Jeremiah 48:10
    Jeremiah 50:21-22
    Jeremiah 51:20-26
    Joshua 6:20-21
    Joshua 7:19-26
    Joshua 8:1-29
    Joshua 19:47
    Judges 4:21
    Judges 8:7
    Judges 8:10
    Judges 15:14-15
    Judges 18:27-29
    Judges 20:48
    Leviticus 20:9
    Leviticus 20:10
    Leviticus 20:13
    Leviticus 20:27
    Leviticus 21:9
    Leviticus 24:10-16
    Leviticus 26:21-22
    Numbers 1:48-51
    Numbers 16:32-35
    Numbers 25:1-9
    Numbers 25:3-4
    Numbers 31:16-18
    Psalms 58:10
    Psalms 68:21-23
    Proverbs 20:20
    Revelation 7:3-4
    Revelation 9:3-4
    Revelation 14:1
    Revelation 14:3-4
    Romans 1:24-32
    Zechariah 13:3
    I Timothy 6:1-2
    Ephesians 6:5
    Exodus 21:2-6
    Exodus 21:7-11
    Exodus 21:20-21
    Leviticus 25:44-46
    Luke 12:47-48
    II Samuel 12:11-14
    Deuteronomy 20:10-14
    Deuteronomy 21:10-14
    Deuteronomy 22:28-29
    Deuteronomy 22:23-24
    Exodus 21:7-11
    Judges 5:30
    Judges 21:10-24
    Numbers 31:7-18
    Zechariah 14:1-2

    May 9, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • Prodigal Son

      @ Kain: John 1:1, so what is the purpose of the list of scriptures?

      I would've have offerred other responses, but seeing that you have taken the time to list these scdriptures leaves me to conclude:
      1. You are playing devil's advocate, as a believer...

      May 24, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Martin Musatov

      @Kartin: Who is a criminal?

      September 1, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • The Author

      I am.

      February 23, 2013 at 5:36 am |
  16. dcspeed164

    I question no man or woman's faith because the bottom line is that the only person that can save my soul is me through my relationship with God. So I try very dilligently to do unto others as I would have them do to me and leave the rest to God.

    May 9, 2011 at 6:21 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.