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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. klein

    Jesus Christ, Yesterday, Today and Forever the Same!

    April 22, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • klein

      How great is the peace I can have in my heart, I know that even though time and friends change my Lord and Saviour will not and cannot change! He is coming back to take all the ransomed with him! Every Knee will bow before an almighty God, So much better to bow by choice and not by force! On Judgement day everyone will bow down and worship the Creator

      April 22, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • Up Your Rear Admiral

      Uh, why again does your supposedly omnipotent sky fairy need so much worship and bowing down? Vanity problem? Needy or something?

      April 22, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  2. Up Your Rear Admiral

    How come the article starts with a picture of a statue of Kenny Loggins? And why does Kenny have such a funny hat on?

    April 22, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • Atheist PhD

      Good ONE!

      April 22, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  3. Luke

    Blasphemy isn't even a crime anymore. This whole trial is a farce. If Jesus ever came back we would all ignore him as a nut.

    April 22, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  4. Chrstians are awesome

    If I went to court and said that God told me to do things I would be considered insane. However when Jesus does it everyone worships him. Can you see the problem there?

    April 22, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      No!

      April 22, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  5. arieokwiu390

    Absolutely ridiculous.

    April 22, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  6. Atheist PhD

    See as soon as someone starts to make a solid argument against religion, he is attacked in an ad hominen way! Christians are so good at getting the other side silenced.

    April 22, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      We learn from the Clintons... the true masters of that art form. 🙂

      April 22, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • Chris

      "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ." – Mohandas Ghandi

      April 22, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  7. Scott

    I think we'd medicate him... I imagine that the second coming isn't going to go any different from the first coming, but crucification isn't on the table anymore (I think).

    April 22, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  8. Kevin Collins

    Sheesh, the GOP would absolutely lynch the guy and then sentence Him to death with his give-to-the-poor, pacifist beliefs that totally go against the grain of greedy, amoral Republicans who have no tolerance or love for anyone different from them. Heck, during a showing of the godawful "Passion of the Christ", with Jesus being beaten and spat on, he might as well as having been traipsed through the Republican National Convention!

    April 22, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Yeah right ... democrats are the masters of tolerance. Anyone disagree or believes anything different than you guys...yep... tolerance thou name is definitely not democrats.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • HappyyppaH

      Jesus was what relublicans would now call an evil U.S.-hating "socialist" who would have been tickled pink by Universal Healthcare, among other social programs, and would have had plently of friends from all walks of life, no matter their background, race, or views.

      & that's why, even though I am no longer a Catholic, I love Jesus. Just the idea of there being such an individual in the world at any point makes me joyful. 🙂 He was the man!

      When I think of him, I do not think of the church or of religion either. I think of a man that wanted to spread peace and kindness.

      April 22, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  9. Brian

    What these People are overlooking is that there was no Christianity to role play with 2000 years ago. So their whole exercise is really a farce. If Jesus hadn't lived out the Prophesy the way it was written the Human Race might not even be here Today. God sent His Son to take Human form so He could fully experience Human interaction. Today's death penalty methods are kind compares to the way the Romans and Jews slaughtered Jesus. He was pretty much skinned alive and then nailed to the Cross and left to die.

    April 22, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • HappyyppaH

      Yet God created human interaction. He created human thought, action, emotion, pain, bliss.... He created existence, heaven and hell, unknown and unseeable levels of being and things/objects/worlds. Your God knows what will happen, what has happened, what is happening. God has a plan for everything, you say when something happens that is significant in either a positive or negative way. There is a reason for every occurence, yes, because God created occurences, as well as innumerable reasons. Who knows most intimately the wiring of human interaction than your creator, the heavenly Father himself? I would assume from what I have read from the old and new testaments and the Qur'an that our entire perception of the universe and ourselves, as well as our interactions were created by a higher power. The creator should know perfectly the mechanics of its creation. Right?

      Which somehow contradicts the argument that Jesus was sent here to relay his experience of human society as a fellow human to his divine (and therefore woefully detached) father. I can't blindly believe that because it doesn't make too much sense.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  10. Bill

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

    God is immortal, so a wouldn't a life sentence amount to eternity behind bars?

    April 22, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  11. Colin

    If the crown of thorns don't fit, you must acquit.

    April 22, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • HappyyppaH

      I wonder how that would have turned out? LOL

      April 22, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  12. Juan

    As a believer of my LORD JESUS CHRIST I find the state of Virginia GUILTY of blasphemy and is sentence to life in the lake of fire.How dare these satan worshipers pull such an typical atheist stuant because they got an agenda just like most parasites in this nation and that is to have full control of other people's lives so that they could feel powerful. Now this type of crap have gone too far,no one dare to say to gay people you should stop being gay or to racist people you should stop hating people of color instead they rather take aim at us and put us on the chopping block to lose our head just because they believe in themselves.No matter if you believe in Jesus or not its not you who is believe in him so why do you care. Take the time to mind your own business and let everyone else do what they feel in their heart and stay out of people's faith PERIOD!

    April 22, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • HappyyppaH

      & the uber religious condemn everyone and everything, including their own.

      Perhaps you should go dive into a lake of fire. Hypocrite.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • Sybaris

      When people like you quit trying to weave your christian dogma into the laws that govern this land then maybe you won't get any attention from those who don't want your form of government.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Stop trying to weave your atheist dogma into law and we might consider it.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Shane

      I hope you are joking. Either that or you didn't read the article. Did Jesus give you permission to judge others? You have the power to sentence people to the "lake of fire"? Wow. . back to reading 101 for you. . the article and the bible.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      1. You don't have that authority
      2. you don't have that power
      3. You nor I are God!

      April 22, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  13. fbnut

    Why do some in the media try to nullify God's Plan. Jesus went through what He did for all of humanity; it was part of God's Plan. We can't use contemporary thinking to "understand" Christianity. Christianity shouldn't change because of modern times, we need to change.

    April 22, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • Chris

      We do need to change, yes. We need to grow up and quit believing fairy tales and propaganda.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      You sound like you are spreading a bit of propaganda yourself there.

      Face facts kid, every one wants the world to think exactly like them and will use pretty much any means to see that folks that think like us stay in line and folks that do not change or die.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  14. HappyyppaH

    The same thing would happen. The only difference is it would be televised and there will be plenty of pictures/video spread around the internet.

    April 22, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  15. butlerbulldawg74

    religion is the root of all evil.

    April 22, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • Chris

      A large portion of it, yes.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Nope, it is not. You are wrong. 🙂

      April 22, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • HappyyppaH

      As a believer, Middle River Mark, you should remember that no one knows God or God's will to speak on authority, not even if you know (in your mind) it to be a fact.

      You never know, perhaps God doesn't like religion, any religion. Perhaps God feels that religion is terribly obnoxious and only resembles in name what he'd sent his only son over to teach. 😉 Perhaps God wishes you would pay more attention to God than focusing on doctrine and pointing fingers or casting stones.

      I don't know for a fact, because I'm not God nor have I ever had the pleasure of conversing with God (not yet, and hopefully not for a long time). Nor are you. I felt the need to point that out.

      April 22, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Up Your Rear Admiral

      "With or without religion, good people will do good and evil people will do evil – But for good people to do evil, that takes religion." Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg

      Happy Earth Day.

      April 22, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  16. Colin

    I have never understood the whole notion that Jesus "died to save us from our sins". What does that even mean? He is (supposedly) god. He makes the rules, so how could he HAVE TO be crucified to save us.

    And what exactly is he saving us from? Not the whole silly Adam and Eve thing. We know beyond paradventure that that was a myth.

    What do Christian believe would be the case if he didn't die and why could not God (who is Jesus, apparently) just forgive us without the whole grizzly crucifiction.

    The whole idea is completely honeycombed with flaws.

    April 22, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • 91Bear

      Grizzly crucifixion? Did they execute a bear? 😉

      April 22, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • Howdy

      Colin,

      The reason Jesus died is because God is both righteous and merciful. So the question is how can God forgive a sin (be merciful) and still be righteous. Someone has to pay for that sin in order for it to be forgiven. That is why Jesus died. He is the payment. Otherwise God would be tolerating sin and that is not God's nature (righteous).

      This is why I don't understand why people say that God sends people to hell. They should be saying why would God go through such extraordinary lengths to get anyone to heaven.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • Jim

      Colin,

      The key here is that God is just and sins have to be punished. The penalty for sin is death, not just "big" sins but all sin. Christ dying is crucial as he is the sinless replacement for each one of us who has sinned (all of us). Could God change the requirements? Sure, but by doing so, he would not prove to be the just God that he is.

      The message of Easter is one of Love in that God so loved the world that he gave his only son to die for us so that those who believe in him can have eternal life.

      Hope you have a blessed Easter. He is Risen.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • HappyyppaH

      @91Bear

      He was put on the cross to save all of Bearkind. Don't belittle Bear Christ!

      April 22, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Up Your Rear Admiral

      Jim, see scapegoats in earlier supersti-tions to yours. Nothing new to see in Christianity, move along.

      The whole concept/made-for-TV stunt of killing Christ to absolve sin is unnecessary, and stupid.

      April 22, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  17. icu

    Republicans would declare him a socialist and he would be put to death again.

    April 22, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • HappyyppaH

      Exactly. They would be the first group to seek blood.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Then he would rise again and declare family values and the democrats would drop the stone on him because of the danger that he might be pro-life.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Howard

      @ Mark ... How do you know Jesus would espouse "family values" and be "pro-life?" You presume to know the mind of your Creator, and that makes you guilty of the sin of presumption.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  18. wow

    CNN why do you put stories like this up here? Just to get people riled up and hating on eachother? The world is full of hate as it is. Money is not the root of all evil the media is.

    April 22, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Chris

      Money is at the root of the media, so yes, it is.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • 91Bear

      Hate is a choice. If you choose to hate, that's your responsibility and not CNN's.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  19. Bernie

    Did Zeus or Apollo get a mock trial?

    April 22, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Jeus Is Lord

      Bernie,

      Jesus Christ will judge each of us individually. Place your faith in Jesus. There is no other way to the Father in Heaven except through Jesus. Peace.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Sybaris

      It is utterly intriguing that people believe that.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • Colin

      or utterly disappointing.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • Patrick

      @ Jesus is lord – Your spiritual life is at it's infancy. I urge you to look past the utterly primitive parental guardian of a god icon you place your burden upon. You must carry your burden because you are alone and you must accept that fact before you are truly alive and awake in this world. You are probably living a very small life in this world and placing all your faith in an eternity of everlasting happiness. This is the show here and now there is no place of safe harbor. Live your life and live kindness don't waste it waiting till you can rejoin your dear father and he will make everything ok again. That is the dream of the eternal child, not the work of an enlightened adult.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • No One Is Safe

      @patrick – very well said!

      April 23, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  20. bummer

    If Jesus was on trial today in the United States we would probably see him a radical heretic terrorist because the United States is like Rome; anyone who speaks out against the norms of society and teachings is seen as a threat and must be dealt with just as it is today, we just label them as terrorists.

    April 22, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Bri

      Are you really comparing Jesus to terrorists?

      April 22, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • Chris

      Bri, yes, he is, but only in the sense that we in America (falsely) label anyone who doesn't agree with the system a "terrorist".

      April 22, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • bummer

      All I am saying is that Jesus spoke out against the Romans and was called a hieratic which was on the same level as terrorists today; now when people have a different view than the united states they are seen/labeled as "terrorists" Im not calling Jesus a terrorists because he didn't use fear/terror to keep people in line.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • LB Colorado

      If Jesus was on trial today, there would have been the same result, God was in control then and HE IS CONTROL NOW. Involving His Son, HE HAD/HAS IT ALL UNDER CONTROL. Our ways are NOT His ways.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Dsquared

      Hmmm ... where in the world might a christian prophet not do so well today. Oh, I think there are places that would be less inviting than the USA.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Chris

      @LBColorado: That line of thought is EXTREMELY dangerous. It suggests that we need not take responsibility for our actions because it is "god's" will and we will never understand it. Dangerous indeed.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • Howard

      To all those who claim God is in control, I have a question. Do you believe in "free will?" Do you believe God gave Man the gift of "free will?" If you do, then I challenge you to square that belief with any conviction you have that God controls human actions. Even by speaking to Moses, God was depriving him of his free will. Now, you might say, Moses was still free to do what he wanted, that he could've left the stone tablets on the mountain. But seriously, what god-fearing person is likely to exercise his free will in contradiction of God's wishes?

      So that's the question: Does God control human actions, and there really isn't any free will ... or is there free will and God is effectively prohibited from interfering with human activities because, to do so, would inevitably violate free will?

      Have fun with that one!

      April 22, 2011 at 2:50 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.