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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. DaveNYUSA

    How stupid.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  2. Jason

    Deeply offensive.
    the idea that trying Jesus as a common criminal and havinf a "prosecutor" who apparently doesn't care about whether the
    accused should even be on trial and more offensively trying to tie it to real-life killers.
    This story is a farce and should offend everyone of faith or who cares about justice in America.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  3. Tim

    Jewish Laws in the First Centuries and Illegalities in Jesus' trial

    Jewish oral tradition, put into writing in the early centuries C.E. but believed to be of great antiquity, included the following rules:

    In capital cases, arguments for acquittal were heard first. In Jesus case, The court heard no arguments or witnesses for acquittal.

    The judges were to make every effort to save the accused. Judges could argue for the accused but not against him. In Jesus case, none of the judges sought to defend Jesus; they were his enemies.

    Witnesses were warned of the seriousness of their role. Witnesses were examined separately, not in the presence of any other witness.

    Testimony had to agree on all essential points—date, place, time of day of the action, and so on. In Jesus case, the priests sought false witnesses to condemn Jesus to death.

    Capital charges had to be tried by day and concluded by day.(Deut 16:18) In Jesus case, the case was heard at night behind closed doors.

    Capital cases could not be considered on the eve of a Sabbath or a festival.
    Capital cases could begin and end on the same day if the verdict was favorable to the accused; if it was unfavorable, the case could be concluded only on the next day, when the verdict would be announced and the sentence executed. In Jesus case, the trial began and concluded in one day, the eve of a festival.

    Capital cases were tried by at least 23 judges. Judges took turns when voting to acquit or to condemn, commencing with the youngest; scribes recorded the words of those who favored acquittal and of those who favored conviction. In Jesus case, there was no indictment, or charge, prior to Jesus’ arrest.

    Acquittal was decided by a simple majority of one, but conviction only by a majority of two; if the vote was for conviction by a majority of just one, two judges were added as often as necessary until a valid decision was reached.

    A verdict of guilty without at least one judge arguing for the accused was invalid; a unanimous verdict of guilty was considered “indicative of a conspiracy”. In Jesus case, (1) Jesus’ claim to Messiahship, said to be “blasphemy,” was not examined.(Mark 14:61-64) (2) The charge was changed from blasphemy to treason when the case came before Pilate.(Luke 23:2) (3) The accusations of not paying taxes were false.(Matt 22:15-22) (4) Pilate found Jesus innocent but still had him executed.(John 18:38; 19:16)

    April 22, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
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      April 22, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • Carolyn

      Wow Dragoneer, thank you for giving us a visual of how you think. Now go get us some doughnuts.

      April 23, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  4. z-man

    People love to attack Islam because they know it's growing so fast not because of the sword but because it appeals to the human intellect once studied objectively. People also attack Muslims saying that Muslims (aka Al Qaida) want to kill all non-Muslims. If that was the case then why are there non-Muslims still in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan where support for Al Qaida is very high. Don't you think it would be easier for Al Qaida to kill the disbelievers in their own backyard then to come all the way over to America or Europe to kill them. People are being fooled and the Americans are the biggest fools and the most brainwashed people on the face of the earth.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  5. Dragoneer

    Wow... You religious people are living proof of being brainwashed and becoming pretty mentally-ill. Wow. Just wow.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • Lettuce Prey

      That's a little harsh, Dragoneer. Remember, more than 90% of the world's population believes in god in one form or another. That's a boatload of brainwashing, don't you think? I'm an atheist, but I don't presume to tell others that I'm right and they are wrong, therefore they are idiots. Try not to judge so harshly. Many intelligent people believe.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • denise

      As i've stated elsewhere, if everyone believed the same thing, we'd be one hell of a boring race. I love religion. All of it. It's fascinating, and more than any other behavior of the human species, it manifests the light and dark in its followers. This goes for Atheism, too, which is a perfectly acceptable world-view in my opinion, as well, and equally fascinating. I'd hate to live in a world completely void of religion and the freedom of thought....it'd be like a world where all the art was still life paintings of fruit bowls.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  6. Doug

    The main contribution of christianity to society (also the reason it flourished), was that it taught us that all men are equal in the eyes of god. My view is that it doesn't matter whether Jesus died or rose again, he's not here now. Religion is irrelevent at this point. It only existed to explain creation, prior to modern science.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  7. unknown

    all these mean post by Athiest... well I was unsure about Jesus.. but because of all this mean stuff.. I definitely believe now.. why else would they be so determined.. the Christians definitely show more Love!

    April 22, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • Artist

      Unknown, if that is your basis to be a christian then you will be a pathetic one at that. However, you are clearly a child christian with a poorly executed plan. Either way it still equals pathetic. Go back to your corner and rethink what you want to do.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  8. John

    Jesus was innocent of all charges! All of the trials were illegal under jewish law. Read the Word people!

    April 22, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  9. bu

    ALL Religion is a disease of the Mind! Be part of the cure, not the problem!

    Help cure the religion disease!

    April 22, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  10. TERRY CHI

    Jesus didn't need any defender...that was one aspect that was unique. He needed no defense, because He wasn't there to DEFEND himself, but there as loving obedience...of the Jehovah Father God and love for all sinners. He never wanted to be declared innocent, because He was already. He purposefully wanted to be crucified...the only way our sins can be forgiven. You have it all messed up.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • keylargo

      When someone's line is "have faith, do not question" it is a scam, likely they want your money.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
  11. Paul

    Interesting, but the fundamental premise of this trial is flawed. According to the New Testament, Jesus was not condemned for blasphemy but for treason. The Romans always affixed a plaque to the cross stating the crime of the condemned. Jesus' crime, as clearly stated his placard, was "King of the Jews." It was his claim that he was a descendant of King David, and therefore the legitimate claimant to the throne of Judea, that cost him his life. The Romans did not enforce Jewish blasphemy laws. That was up to the Sanhedrin, and they were not allowed by the Romans to impose the death penalty.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • denise

      Nicely done, sir!

      April 22, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Capricorn43

      Cool, this is true

      April 22, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  12. JC

    What a waste of time and money! Of course the whole thing is a sham. But I'll keep my fake holidays, thank you very much; because I teach your useless, lazy, shiftless, buck-passing, investment-banking, pension-raiding, Palin-believing, arrogant, illiterate, unreasoning, unaccountable, drug-using, self-exploiting fools of children.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • mama panda

      Sham, yes - in the sense that this "trial" occurred a couple thousand years after the Biblical event. Waste of time and money? No way. The participants learned a lot. You, on the other hand, are stuck at the first-grade name-calling level. I'm ashamed to think you consider yourself a teacher.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • denise

      Well said, Panda lady!

      April 22, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  13. keylargo

    Any teaching that encourages "have faith, do not question" is a scam, likely they want your money.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • PeterVN

      keylargo, indeed. George Carlin says it well within this:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeSSwKffj9o

      April 22, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • Capricorn43

      Hello Keylargo, FAITH is not a scam, the Holy Bible it says " But without faith it is imposssible to please him: for him that cometh to God must believe that he is ,and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him" Hebrews 11: 6. But the reason for this so callled scam as you call it, is to show how the death pently is not right.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  14. Interesting

    I wish I saw this trial, it must be very interesting to put the alleged Passion of Christ in a modern lens.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  15. Coined

    Hey – for all you atheists and haters of religion – on today’s date back in 1864 US Congress authorized the inscription “In God We Trust” on US currency. There, now I’ve given you something more to be mad about.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Laura

      I can name 100,000 things we left your imaginary friends name off of too. Soooo.....I win?

      April 22, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • PeterVN

      Great response, Laura.

      Recently, I think the religealots lost a case to get the 10 commandments posted at a courthouse. If so, score 1 more.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • Dave

      Haha, Laura just won the internet. Typed on a keyboard with no religious inscription.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • PeterVN

      In Dave we trust.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  16. Kenny

    He would be prosecuted to the fullest extent like David Koresh in Waco, TX. All that followed him will be labeled as lunatics.

    April 22, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • denise

      I think you are correct, sir. In the eyes of Rome, he and his followers were exactly the same as the controversial religious and cult leaders of our time...and yes, before anyone starts hurling threats of fire and brimstone at me, Christianity was, in fact, a CULT for a very long time, before being recognized as a religion.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  17. Abdulaziz Al-Qasim

    I'm muslim and condemn doing such thing, Jesus christ is a prophet, who the hell are these people to subject a prophet to trial

    April 22, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • TheOracle8191

      Jesus was far more than a prophet, my friend. He is the savior of the world. He took the punishment of your sin and mine so we could both, we could ALL, enter the kingdom of heaven, stainless and pure. The only thing we have to do is believe it 🙂

      April 22, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • denise

      they are not subjecting JEsus to anything. Jesus was subjected to a trial, torture, and execution 2011 years ago. They are simply applying modern thought processes to a historical event to gain insight to their own faith. This reenactment causes them to think about Jesus as someone who actually existed, not just a story or a figure of veneration. It takes them out of their comfortable, blind faith and compels them to question why they believe certain things. In the end, it makes their faith more real to them, and more precious. I am neither a Christian, nor a Muslim, but I applaud them for taking the time to question the why of their belief, rather than just swallow it at face value.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • Artist

      In situations like this he is considered insane. Once determined then jesus could get the proper help.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • Watcher

      Blah, blah blah. It's all a made up story. You can beliueve what you would like but I believ the what is real.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • DP

      How do you know what Jesus would be offended by?

      April 22, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
  18. keylargo

    Any idea that expects you to "not question, have faith" is a scam, you better watch your purse strings!

    April 22, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Avdin

      You take science on faith. You have faith that the scientists did there job correctly, that they haven't misinterpreted anything and that the people they learned from had not done the same.
      The late Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, once said: "science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."
      I personally have worked on a scientific research project for which the background material I had to read blatantly contradicted itself on some of the major points. Science is absolutely based on faith.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • PeterVN

      Avdin, that's nonsense, and you are misinterpreting what Feynmann said. Science is always open to examination and revision, whereas religion is 100% doctrinal and belief-based. Science is not a belief system. Religion is. That is a fundamental difference.

      You might find this illuminating, although I don't have much hope that you will:
      http://www.theharbinger.org/articles/rel_sci/gottlie2.html

      April 22, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  19. Handofdoom

    U people , ( ARE SICK ) !

    April 22, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  20. edvhou812

    Weird. Most Christians I know would have voted to execute Jesus so that he could die for the sins of all men and women. That is a fundamental part of the Christian Bible.

    April 22, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • Capricorn43

      This is so true!!!

      April 22, 2011 at 5:11 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.