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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. christopher

    How stupid. What a waste of time. In American law today he didn't even do anything criminal. There would have been no trial at all. Now you may use this example in Iranian law or some uncivilized backward nation like that but American law? There is no crime here and anything he did that was criminal by today's standards would have been overlooked. It would have been one of those old laws they just "forgot" to take off the books but that hasn't been enforced for a century. Rediculous.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Sally Li

      You say that under American law, if someone doesn't break the law, they can't be put on trial? Come to Pennsylvania and find out what they did to a great teacher there, in January. What did the teacher do? Encouraged a student to study and to read the Bible. Did he break the law? No! Authorities lied through their teeth in order to obtain a conviction. History repeats itself almost 2,000 years later.

      April 24, 2011 at 3:37 am |
  2. onelasttime

    If Jesus was brought to trial today:
    1-He would be accused of being "an antisemitic Hitler-loving, hate monger".
    and maybe he would be sent to GITMO.
    2-He would be sentenced to 20 years and would be required to attend "sensitivity training" as a condition of any future parole.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  3. JimDandy64

    Wow, this is quite possibly the most pointless exercise I have seen in quite some time.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  4. Stephanie Rapko

    Jesus did exactly what His Father sent Him here to do. Tear a whole in the fabric of an evil, ungodly, world with the Truth. If He did not do that, you would not have the forgiveness of God, You would never find your way back to Christ. The world then like now is greedy in every sense of the word. So much so they would sell their own souls for the love of money (oil). You convict Him again in this mock trial, and maybe rightfully so, why, because He is Truth, and as long as this world turns a blind eye to what is going on and remains in evil, the world will continually convict Good. Evil does not want truth to be known, for then evil will die. But wait, Evil does die when Jesus returns! Allejuah!. As God says every knee will bow and all will see that I AM GOD!

    April 22, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • Bernie

      Isn't jesus just a cloned version of the same person...transported down into a virgin?

      April 22, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Kdavid3

      Beware of false gods. We will know when the real Jesus returns by the fruit he produces. A bad tree cannot produce good fruit. Only a good tree can produce good fruit.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  5. matt

    ............Most churchgoing christians of today belonging to the myriad of all the splinter groups of Christianity out there would NOT recognize Jesus and his group if HE would walk down the street preaching in America today............They would ignore HIM, revile HIM and simply NOT believe that He was in fact the messiah.............Most Christians of today have their own agenda and/or interpretation of just exactly what Jesus meant when he preached the WORD..............Would they crucify HIM...........Depends on the group involved...........

    April 22, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  6. Puzzled in Peoria

    That was then and this is now. Jesus' original trial may have been rigged, but he voluntarily sacrificed himself. That was the only possible outcome then, and a necessary one.

    As for the atheists who seem drawn to these articles like ants to honey, you're not going to change any Christians' minds, and we're not going to change yours.

    It seems a waste of everybody's time to keep trying.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Damien

      Amen to that. Well spoken.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Artist

      Puzzled actually the christies are the ants. Poke them and watch what happens. No one wants to change anybody because the entertainment value is priceless. Think about it, there are people out there who actually still believe in gods LOL. Strangly, they stopped believing in santa though :(. Carry on ....tell us some more. LOL

      April 22, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • Tom

      Actually the athesist are trying to change anyone's mind beause they have nothing to prove. Its you and the rest of Christianity that needs to come up with the evidence to back up what you're saying and believe.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • No One Is Safe

      i really don't have a problem with the christians who simply try to live their lives in a christ-like manner. it's those who try to foist their mores and morality on the rest of us that irritate me.

      and then there's the whole class of morons like heavenscented, and adelina/frederica/whatever-other-personalities-she-has.... these idiots are just too much fun to toy with, as they are so completely incapable of individual thought...

      April 23, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  7. Pip

    He would be assassinated like most leaders that are "truly" for peace.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  8. Damien

    Well obviously this trial was biased because everyone knows who Jesus is. If Jesus was tried for anything, it would be a lack of mental capacity; would you believe someone running around saying they were the son of God to be in perfect mental health? I think not. Would you accept someone into your home claiming to be the son of God? I think not. Personally I think Jesus would be harmless nowadays unless he was getting too uppity with his message.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  9. Artist

    It is obvious he would be viewed as a delusional nutcase. The christies know this as well. The world is full of prophets and saviors on our street corners, we just roll our eyes when they speak.
    .
    He would also be considered a liberal/democrat and adverse everything the christian right stands for and does in our government.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Artist

      ps and I am gu e s sing he would be vi ew ed/pa int ed as a p ot ent ial ho mos e- x ual living a bohe mian lif es tyle with only men.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  10. ???

    If you are offended by this tot he point that you want the person who organized it punished your faith wasn't that strong to begin with.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  11. Mortimerman

    Help me Jebus!

    April 22, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  12. Delusional

    hmmm, if the religious would refrain from jamming their faith down our throats, would the athiest/non-religious stop insulting the other. ..or vice-versa . Probably not. We're all a bunch of hypocrtical jerk-offs. So what if I care deeply for my fellow humans and do so in the name of a magic guy in the sky, or do the same because I'm a non-beliver in the skyman....Get a life....live and let live. We all might be a little happier.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • STBV

      Delusional sums up your comments pretty well. You should get the facts and be more concerend about where you'll spend eternity. Don't wait till it's too late.

      http://www.jamesbouvier.com

      April 22, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Kdavid3

      Why do you read and respond to article like this? I think you are looking for answers. I hope you find them. May the Lord bless you.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  13. al

    Um, what? Hopefully people realize that if you're going to be Christian you have to accept that Jesus not only knew he was going to die, but he HAD to die. If Jesus didn't die and get resurrected Christians wouldn't have a religion. If the crucfixion and resurrection didn't happen (ie, the entire basis of the easter holiday) Christians would essentially be...wait for it...Muslims. Remember that aside from traditions, the ONLY thing that separates Muslims from Christians is the difference of opinion regarding the divinity of Christ. Before anyone tries to rail on this, keep in mind that Muslims actually believe in the immaculate conception and virgin birth...I doubt most of them know that, however, since I find that most religious people have never actually read their holy books, but that's neither here nor there...

    April 22, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • No One Is Safe

      sorry, al, but thanks for playing.

      if this man-on-a-stick hadn't died, all you christians and muslims would've *remained* jews! that's what this jesus fellow would've been, that's what all of you would've been.

      April 23, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  14. EMERSE

    What a funky thing to do! Folks! If a man claimed to be the son of god today he would be in a mental hospital. If he gained followers, it would be considered a cult. As long as they are following the laws of the land he could not be taken to trial anyway! I could run around saying I am the son of god all day long today and nothing would happen because its not against the law! Im glad these fools have all this time on their hands to waste on such a stupid act.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Jimmy

      Thank you for making a statement with common logic as opposed to the rest of the comments here who are chastising people because they would or would not give Jesus a fair trial.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • Jessica S

      Agreed

      April 22, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  15. Anon4242

    But if he hadn't died, he couldn't have risen.
    Beating death in one way or another is the major defining factor in being a God.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  16. Belief is in the Eye of the Believer

    While this was an interesting read, the mock trial was still off. In today's courts you're held to judgement by a jury of your peers. By staging this trial in a church, he's being held by a jury of his followers who struggle with the idea of condemning their GOD. For it to be more accurate, the makeup of the juries would have to have a similar religious makeup as exists in the US today. Were the athiests invited? The pagans? The jews, muslims, or scientologists? If the make up of the juries were more accurate and diverse, perhaps the outcome of "life in prison" would have been different.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      What you said was so true! Today the jury woul b e made up of His peers! Well stated. Just one little problem. The Son of God HAS NO PEERS! The result....MISTRIAL!

      April 22, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  17. Lisa S, Palmer, Alaska

    Humans being what we are wouldn't do very different that 2000 years ago. His message is not truly accepted by very many. He would still die, that's what He came to do – to die in our stead for the sins of all who have ever lived. That's what really killed Him, not the nails in His hands and feet.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  18. Kevin K in Texas

    Jesus was an alien.. This is how he was able to manipulate water on a molecular level and change it into wine. Alien technology is far advanced and they have given us technologies in the past that has sped up our techonology advances.. His ability to heal and preform miracles came from his ability to manipulate the physical world around him. He didn't have "powers", he had abilities and knowledge that far exceeded human ability or comprehension of that time.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • STBV

      I hope you're being sarcastic. If not, you need to seek help immediately.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Damien

      Talk about X-Men: The First Class...I bet he could not only lift spirits, but also large boulders...with his mind.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • Bernie

      So god is really an alien, not a jewish zombie? Sweet!

      April 22, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Will

      STBV: it's called humor. Lighten up.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Barbara Barrs

      I will pray God will open your eyes, take you in His arms and love you forever.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • AsayaYeahyas

      Now I could believe that.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Actually, its less ludicrous than what the faithful believe.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Jessica S

      Makes Sense

      April 22, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
  19. noname

    You can deny His claim to diety...you can deny His miraculous works...you can deny that He died and rose again three days later as atonement for yours and my sins...but to deny that He lived and walked this earth is lunacy! Historians across time have declared that Jesus Christ of Nazareth was a real man that lived and breathed on this earth, so don't walk around trying to trik yourself into beliving that he was a "mythical charachter" or a "figmant of a Christians imagination." You either accept Him for who He was and place your faith and trust in what He did for you, or you don't. It's a very simple decision to make, and it will have an impact on your eternal life. May God bless you all thie Easter as we remember the sacrifice that He made for you and me! Hosanna! Praise to the King of Kings!

    April 22, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  20. David Daniels

    Should Jesus be somehow alive and arrested today and put on trial in today's world he would not be found guilty except that is if he were in some middle east muslim country that would be blind to his truth still looking to muhammed for their direction. Even if he is tried in Israel today the Jews would be hard pressed to convict him of anything with enormous international pressure through heavy media exposure. What he would be found to MOST anti-religious authoritative bodies is to be INSANE while there would still always be some governmental agents that would believe whole heartedly in the miracles they might have seen him do. Still, beccause of modern media, many many more believers would have followed his walk. Outside of some WACO type incident the people would have pronounced him KING to a 21st century degenerate would. The fact is that these times are sold out to SATAN and he has been given dominion of these days as is the plan of GOD. The fact is the these times are not right for him to have come. AS he said so clearly he came to die in the flesh, to be sacrificed, a spotless lamb given for the sins of the world. Remember everytime the people of his day tried to grab him and proclaim him King at that time HE RAN from them so they could not accomplish their worldly ambition.. It was not his intention to be made KING of this realm. He would not come in this time because in this time the sacrifice would not be finished because of laws and atheistic nicities. JESUS is ROYALTY from another realm and he died to allow people a chance, a conduit, a way to something better if they should believe. Judgement had already been pronounced on this world, life, dimension and he took that guilt upon himself that he would be that clean doorway to the FATHERS realm. Not that our times don't mean anything to the King of Kings as he died for every generation but the fact is that our Modern times would have just stood in the way of HIS PERFECT PLAN! Blessing to all and happy easter!

    April 22, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • Will

      The idea, Dave, is to keep your audience engaged. Don't drone on and on and on. Just get to your point!

      April 22, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • wraith729

      You also need to remember, back thought he was nuts back then. It wasn't until after he died that people began to follow his teachings and then worship him. If someone today did this, it would be hundreds of years before there would be a viable religion. Early Christians hid away from the Romans, holding services in seclusion. It wasn't until people in power converted that Christianity became legal. So if Jesus was around today, doing the things he did back then, we would look at him as a religions zealot causing trouble which in historical terms he was doing. He was challenging the status quo which got him killed.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Gary

      TL;DR

      April 22, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • *SIGH*

      Considering the Koran mentions Jesus (as a prophet of God) more often than the Bible mentions Jesus altogether, I don't think your line about him being held guilty simply because he is Jesus is true. If you love America, please educate yourself.

      Thanks,
      A patriotic and educated American.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • DTB

      How would a middle-eastern, self-described son of God fair in an American trial?

      April 22, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      What trial? No law has been broken.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
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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.