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. Born Again Birther

    I demand to see his birth certificate - Long Form, please!

    April 22, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
  2. fimeilleur

    WOW. Another publicity stunt to try and make religion "relevant" to today's society. *FACEPALM*

    April 22, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  3. 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 5:58 pm |
    • Avdin

      quantum level. not molecular. he would have had to create cradon from oxygen and hydrogen.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
    • paul

      you are the alien my spaced out friend, go eat some more of them thar Texas shrooms

      April 22, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
    • Kevin K in Texas

      @Avdin, further supporting my theory of alien advanced technology.... Hey 2000 years ago, a machine that holds humans is totally unexplainable.... That is why they thought of them as god and/or angels.... they could do things that with today's perceptions of science and technology would be much more explainable.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • Kevin K in Texas

      holds humans and flys is what i mean... thanks... don't hate.. you all typo too...jerks..

      April 22, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • dave


      April 22, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  4. aatami

    Guilty of crimes against humanity!

    April 22, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
  5. Danny

    The irrational left.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  6. Henry Plantagenet

    The "trial" was rather a joke since they skipped right to the guilty verdict and went straight into the penalty phase. A more interesting trial would have looked at what Jesus actually did - and according to the Gospels he abused the priests repeatedly and trashed the Temple and its workers - and looked at Jewish and Roman law to see which rules, if any, he broke.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  7. JohnM

    Wow, an entire church that doesn't grasp the very basic aspect of the gospel. If Jesus had been sentenced to life in prison there would be no forgiveness for sin. If they understood the gospel the crowd would have been weeping rather than applauding the sentence.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
  8. Duggy

    If he is judged today, he will be guilty and send to mental hospital.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
    • supremeamerican

      Oh no, another person that's jeally because jesus is awesome. Hahaha you're just jeally

      April 22, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
  9. JD Sheline

    We'd throw Jesus in a straight jacket and call him a nut job. After his stint in the puzzle factory we'd give him social security, pay for his house, food and medication. I'm thinking about Jesus making a belt in the looney bin, right now.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
    • supremeamerican

      He'd be the only nutjob in history with common sense rationality and logic so profound it rattles people's nerves. You're just jeally.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
  10. kevin

    what i can't do, God did for me by sending his son to die for me. he took my punishment, so now the judge is free to forgive me, because my entire debt for my continueing idiot life is paid in full. This was His plan from the begininng by an all knowing God...He loves me that much...do you believe He love you as much, that He paid for your guilt as well?

    April 22, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  11. Mark

    Today, he wouldnt go on trial, hed get foodstamps, a place to live, transportation expenses, and job training. All at the expense of the tax payer.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
    • Casey

      You're comparing Jesus to an unemployed slacker? I'm not really sure what you're arguing for...

      April 22, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
  12. Michael Cropper

    Interesting. I particularly liked the acknowledgment of Jesus as a man of no means. A poor man without standing. A black man. Good job. But today they wouldn't accuse Christ of being blasphemous. That doesn't mean anything to people these days. They would call Him a child molester, or a rapist, or a murderer, or mad cult leader. Remember, there was no way for Christ to escape death. It was a kangaroo court. I was tried in Torrance, CA. The judge was crooked. The attorneys were crooked. It was a kangaroo court. The jury let me go. Not this time. All who speak up 4 justice today are Christ. Good job.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
  13. paul

    To all atheist,if there is no God why do you people show up every time there is even the slightest mention of said God?Seems to me IF there were no God you folks should not even be concerned w/those of us who do BELIEVE! You are so afraid of what you yourselves do not believe,every time God is mentioned you are quick to show up,only to to try to prove your point that there is no God,only to have it fall on our deaf ears.The whole thing is about belief.Apparently there was something about this Jesus of Nazareth,who else could split time,BC/AD ON the world calender.If there is no God in your minds, then you really dont have anything to fear,right? But if there is your knee will bow and your tongue will confess just as the bible says.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • Shawn

      You..... are......delusional !!!!!

      April 22, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
    • Artist

      Paul, dont flatter yourself. I dont think anybody wants to change anybody. Religious nuts are worth more as a good laugh. They (religious nuts) should be thankful we still dont feed them to the lions and bears oh my.
      Only difference between the muslims and christians is the christians are slowly stepping out of the dark ages while the muslims still remain. Just a matter of time before we weed out the ignorant. That is the master plan by the way.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
    • paul

      Shawn of the dead,you mock what you don't understand,or what your afraid of.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Kevin K in Texas

      no, its just fun to be right and to see you psychopathic crazies get all worked up about it... lol... and we will keep on going....

      April 22, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
  14. amust

    for Muslims, Jesus is a prophet of ALLAH (GOD), son of Mariam (Mary), and is going to come down and bring peace and justice for all. these drama may have positive imapct on society to create awareness, question the myths,etc.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
  15. Tommy Waters

    This mock trial is just a farce put on by the christian community. If this jesus were alive today, which by the way it hasn't been proven that he ever existed in the first place, he would never have made it to trial. he would have been killed in battle against the UN or die hidden in a cave.

    He would be no better than others like him such as Osama Bin Laden and Gaddafi. He was a nutcase proclaiming to be the leader of the entire world, based on religious writings that stated that he would kill entire nations if they do not obey and follow him. Remember, this is exactly what the Jewish god did in the old testament and he was saying he was this same wrathful, murderous and jealous god. He was a terrorist.

    Think about it and be honest with yourselves.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
    • paul

      every man will give an account of every thing he has said,did,thought or in your case typed.Many be called few are chosen.
      the Apostle Paul said if our gospel be hid it is hid to them that are lost,that the Lord of this world(Satan) has blinded there eyes that they might believe>>>>>Forget about it,the preaching of the cross is to those that are perishing foolishness.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
    • Tommy Waters

      umm Paul, did you not read my last sentence?

      I said think about it. You didn't think.
      I said be honest with yourselves. You aren't being honest with yourself.

      Now, I know that your quoting that crp from your bible so, I'll give you some slack since you obviously have no clue how to think for yourself. But, I can read what you said as a personal threat. So, I will be put to death and perish in some made up hell, because I don't believe you lies? Who's going to put me to death? You?

      Tell ya what, fool. I guarantee you that if your made up jesus even existed and end times come he will accept me into his heaven way before he would you. I would think he would want someone who questioned all things and was able to think for themselves more than someone that follows a made up religion blindly.

      I live a good life. I help others without judging them. I do not threaten to send others to hell because they are different than me. Thanks for playing but in this thing called life, you lose.

      go troll someone somewhere else.. You can NOT prove that your jesus even existed. You can NOT prove any of what you say you believe. Until you can bring a little bit of intelligence and proof to the table, you're nothing but a sad, pathetic, misguided person.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  16. crucified

    @Void... I did not abandon Pascal's Wager.. your thoughts on it.. make no sense.. you are essentially saying even if you knew the outcome you would not care of the result.. typical Athiest response ...the response of decay.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
  17. Capricorn43

    Heavenly Father, teach me to love like you, in the name of Jesus

    April 22, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • Jeus Is Lord

      Excellent prayer. I'll stand in agreement with you. Amen.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  18. z-man

    Guys Jesus did not die on the cross. God lifted him to heaven before any harm came to him. My question is who died on the cross? Was it Jesus the man or Jesus the God. If it was Jesus the man then why kill an innocent man and if if it was Jesus the God then how could God die. Death is a human trait and not a divine traits. In order to explain this, the Christians will have to do a lot of intellectual acrobatics.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • Roger Banfield

      z-man.... if jesus were standing in front of you, i bet you would still say the same things... not all will hear and listen, but thats not the reason Jesus told his disciples to preach... they were to preach, so they could decide, the decision belongs to each of us...

      April 22, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • Phil

      Good thing God is beyond our understanding.

      Acts 3:15 "You killed the author of life!!!"

      April 22, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • kleineganz

      If he did not die on the cross, then who was supposedly resurrected 3 days later (according to scripture)? Don't you have to be dead to be resurrected?

      April 22, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • rec

      Christ DID die on the crosas for our sins.........That is a fact.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • A Priest and a Rabbi walk into a bar...

      Wow, Z-man, you really don't get it! Jesus said, " you will destroy this temple (his body), and I will rebuild it in three days." He is saying you can destroy the body (the human part), God is always.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • jm2011

      When Jesus was born, he became fully human. Therefore Jesus died on the cross as a human being. It is his death that is meant to save us from our sins. Jesus, though a human, was the Messiah, a gift from God, his son. Jesus suffered death as a human before coming back to life to spread the good word. He then ascended into heaven where he is seated at the right hand of God, the father. He now is part of the Holy Trinity, God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • Krystal

      Jesus was both. He was fully God but He was also fully man. As a human, He got tired, thirsty, sick just like we do. He had all of the limitations that the human body has. As far as intellectually explaining it, it can't be done. God defies our human logic. That is what it means when Christians say they live by faith.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • Saied

      Jesus was asked for a sign by the Jews and he said I will give you only the sign of Jonah, that so that Jonah was alive in the Belly of the Whale for 3 days and so will the Son of Man be alive in the tomb for 3 days, which means, if what Jesus said is true to be like Jonah, then he was Alive in the Tomb, not Dead, and thus never killed. Spot on Zman.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • supremeamerican

      LOL this just proves you have no idea what Christianity is. Observe the Trinity you fool.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • kattstish

      Jesus was made human in order to pay the price of us standing the chance to get to heaven. Jesus the man died on the cross, only to be lifted after death by God in heaven. Everything that was done to him in crucifixion was felt by Jesus the man. So to answer your question, Jesus the man died on the cross, and on the third day, God lifted him up from the dead.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
    • Christian

      Bro, Are you serious? Jesus did die on the cross and suffered HisFather's wrath for us. He took all of our sins and burdened Himself with them so that we can have a place in Heaven. He specifically died on the cross, reserrected and left His grave and went to His disciples because they began to doubt He was God, so He proved to them He was by the holes in His hands and feet. Then He arose into Heaven and they all saw.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
  19. Burbank

    Corny. Corny. Corny.

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

      You jeally bro? You jeally that jesus is awesome and you are not? Yeah, you're jeally.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  20. Gazork

    It is a realistic approach to something many people do not investigate. One should not investigate faith? Why not?

    April 22, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • Phil

      Of course Jesus deserved death: Though he was innocent, he had the sins of the world on his back. This made him an adulterer, terrorist, murderer, perjurer, you name it!

      "he was pierced for OUR transgressions, he was crushed for OUR wrong doings. The punishment that brought us peace was upon him and by his wounds, we are healed."

      April 22, 2011 at 5:33 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.