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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. jeebs

    Is there some sort of problem with letting someone believe what they choose to believe? Is there some sort of athiest credo that says "destroy all Christians, belittle them, dog them, show nothing but hate for them."?

    give me a good reason why belittling and calling someone horrible names because of what they believe is OK. I wonder if this type of hate rhetoric is what you are teaching your children.

    No matter what your faith or lack thereof may be, the story of Jesus Christ is a story of unconditional love, one of mercy, and one of peace. Jesus never harmed a single person in his 33 years of life. There is no logical reason why anyone should be showing so much animosity towards one such as this. So what if you don't believe in God. So what if you dont believe in Jesus Christ and his divinity? What is that to anyone but yourself? Likewise, what is it to you if I choose to believe in these things? How is it harming you?

    You athiests are convinced you must "enlighten" all christians to the folly of their beliefs, so you verbally blast anyone that would hold to the standards that Jesus espoused by calling them names and belittling their faith.. How does that make any of you different that the Christians you say you hate because they did that to you?

    You yourselves are walking contradictions.....

    April 22, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
  2. Reality

    Reiteration is great for the learning process. As is reading and rational thinking followed by conclusions based on all of it.

    Once again, Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane. -–

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Some early and most contemporary NT experts (see below for a partial listing) after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospel being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European, white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices.

    H.S. Reimarus
    R. Bultmann
    E. Kasemann
    Earl Doherty
    Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy
    Alvar Ellegård
    G. A. Wells
    Gregory Riley
    Robert Eisenman
    John Dominic Crossan
    Robert Funk
    Burton Mack
    Stephen J. Patterson
    Marcus Borg
    Stevan Davies
    Geza Vermes
    Richard Horsley
    Hyam Maccoby
    Gerd Theissen
    Bart Ehrman
    Paula Fredriksen
    Gerd Lüdemann
    John P. Meier
    E. P. Sanders
    Robert H. Stein
    Karen Armstrong
    Albert Schweitzer (The Quest for the Historical Jesus)
    Mahlon Smith
    Karen Pagels

    April 22, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
  3. St. Thomas

    Here is the reality...prove I exist...me...not an email address, not a computer address but the actual person who typed this very message without any doubt. Prove I do not exist.

    April 22, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
    • paul

      smoke some more of whatever it is your smoking and you really wont exist!

      April 22, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  4. Jesus

    Jesus is the poor. How you treat the poor is how you will be treated in heaven. Many many "Christians" are headed to Hell, and their ego (Satan) is too powerful to intervene. What do YOU do for the 20 thousand CHILDREN that die every day from hunger?

    April 22, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
  5. Michelle Shira

    Why are most of the non-believers on these boards so antagonistic? What about Christians get you so riled up that you feel the need to read and comment articles about something you don't even believe in? As a Christian I have absolutely no interest in going to Atheist/Agnostic websites and insulting them. What a waste time.

    April 22, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
    • paul

      my thought exactly, why do these people show up to debate something they deny exist?

      April 22, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • Born Again Birther

      Last time I checked, CNN wasn't a religious site.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      They come here so that we can battle!!

      I am just wondering which think tank is actually funding this study. I like coming here...it sharpens my Christian claws.

      ROFL.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • Artist

      Michelle Shira have you been to a circus? If so, then you know why some come here. Christians are just to darn entertaining. What would really be sweet is if the brought back the lions.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
    • supremeamerican

      Michelle, they have a Napoleon complex and feel threatened by something greater than themselves, and the prospect of broadening their mind beyond the weak and small boundaries of their comfort zone. That is a description of the typical pretentious cnn atheist you will find on these comment boards.

      April 22, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • Sharon

      supremeamerican it would probably shock you to realize many people who don't share your faith have actually read the bible more than once and decided it wasn't for them, plus not everyone posting here is an atheist but people of other faiths..

      You are the one with the complex check out the log in your eye!

      April 22, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
  6. paul

    anybody here ever do a eschatological study of the Bible?

    April 22, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
  7. David

    Do not do politics with jesus, worse if he is convicted again.
    All his natural life in prison ??????? What is this.
    Please look for other means of removing the death penalty in his state, the life of Jesus is not comparable to anything.

    April 22, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
  8. jcg

    This is a really wierd way to prove a point. I also love how people argue about religion when there is even a HINT of religion in a story.

    April 22, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
  9. Dane

    So do Christians now riot in the streets and kill guards at a government building? Im guessing no

    April 22, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  10. Tariq Shamsi

    As a muslim, I have 100% solid belief that Jesus(peace and blessings of God be upon him) exsisted and will return to earth to establish God's kingdom on earth before the day of judgement

    April 22, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  11. paul

    Yes Yes Tommy,he would want people that would question him,But not deny him.

    April 22, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
  12. dave

    jesus was just a man, son of god? no. have ANY of you religious fanatics ever heard of a guy named constantine? read your history as much as you do his pathetic attempt to immortalize himself(bible) and you might learn enough to realize what a great lie has been perpetrated upon humanity! there is NO such thing as a soul, kindergarten fairy tales!

    April 22, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
  13. Dan

    The position of Jeanne Bishop in this story baffles me. Her sister was murdered and that motivated her to oppose the death penalty? Shouldn't that drive someone to support the death penalty? Hey Ms Bishop, it was the home invader who killed your sister, not the state of Virginia. The death penalty would assure he never kills again. As for what would be done to Jesus in modern day America, nothing would be done to him. The same seperation of church and state laws that keep fundie christians from shoving their religion down the rest of our throats would also protect Jesus from any state sponsored persecution. An irony considering the constant attempts of fundies to turn the USA into a theocracy.

    April 22, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
    • standingwave

      Dan,she's the one who went through the loss of someone dear.If that made her realize how precious life is who are you to question it?

      April 22, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
  14. M

    I would have figured the trial would have brought up the idea, that it is not moral to execute a man to absolve you of your so called "sins" so you can live forever, and that it pretty much doesn't make sense for an omnipotent God to sacrifice himself to himself to save everyone from something he crated in the first place. If they wanted to to show how barbaric the death penalty is and why the U.S. should join the rest of Western Europe in abolishing it, they could've simply shown case after case in where innocent people were executed.

    April 22, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  15. Rachel

    What a horrific circus we've got here in an attempt to condemn a man who represented LOVE and TRUTH within the entire human race. Power just ruins it, and strips a man who is a man we all wish WE could be in this lifetime.

    Jesus should have NEVERRRRRRRR been on trial! He represented truth and the light. And these ridiculous court game players have chosen to play games with this truth.

    You are all sick.

    April 22, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • Richard

      Rachel;

      Lets start with Jesus never existed, 1/2 billion dead because of people who believe that God told them to do something, 1/2 billion look at the facts, the Crusades, the 30 years war, the Tai Pang rebellion, religion is nothing more than an attempt to control the masses thru fear of eternal justice, and God is a primitive attempt to understand the universe we live in.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
    • Born Again Birther

      The case was rigged from the start, remember? He was supposed to die all along.

      But I have to say I liked the Alternate Ending in the "Last Temptation" movie. Jesus hooked up with Mary Magdalene, they had a bunch of brats, and retired to Florida. Or something like that.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
    • Richard

      At least Florida is better that Israel, what a dump, sand and sand, and cold in the winter. Why didn'y Jesus tell them to go to Fiji or Guam, a lot more like paradise than the middle east. I means its a crap hole.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • jcg

      @ Richard
      I'm just thowing this out there. First, you can say that any type of believe is used to trick the masses. Also there just might be a chance that there is a God(hate using that word BTW) but people took what he said and ran with it. Using their own perspectives and hated to manipulate people, to use them. We as human just took what YHWH said wrong or just used it for our gain. I say this also including people in the Bible BTW.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
    • Richard

      If there was a God (BTW hate using it myself) how petty and selfish would he consider us for fighting and killing about the fleas we are trying to dominate the dog we live on?

      April 22, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
  16. Richard

    Here let me start, not one of the original apostles ever wrote a single word about Jesus, first confirmed 3rd party refernce was 105 AD after the Synoptic Gospels were written, the story of Jesus is written by Luke, who never met Jesus told to him by Paul who never met him either.

    Wow let me believe

    April 22, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • Artist

      I wonder if most christians actually think the gospels were written first hand? Their faith is based on hersay of men who never met jesus nor witnessed what was written. These men simply trusted another guy who never new jesus as well. Talk about BS lol

      April 22, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
    • paul

      Richard sin,maybe you've heard of it? is the cause of war! Try doing an eschatological study of the bible pal.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
    • Person of Faith

      Here is the introduction to the Gospel of Luke:

      1:1 Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us,

      1:2 Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word;

      1:3 It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus,

      1:4 That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.

      Notice that Luke states that his Gospel is based on the testimony of eyewitnesses in order to establish the certainty of those things which were being taught.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
    • Born Again Birther

      Person of Faith: Luke wasn't an Apostle. He was a disciple of Paul.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
    • Richard

      How about a study of history not the imaginary one presented in the bible. I am always amazed at how little Christians know of their own faith............! LOL

      April 22, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
    • Artist

      Person of Faith

      "Notice that Luke states that his Gospel is based on the testimony of eyewitnesses in order to establish the certainty of those things which were being taught."
      .
      So are you saying that the Luke who wrote it is the Apostle Luke? You are not aware that the Luke who wrote it never knew or met jesus as well as paul who told him what to write. It was well after jesus.

      April 22, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • Richard

      I am not saying it history is, Luke wrote the Gosples almost 70 years after Jesus supposed life and death. he never met him and the enitire story of Jesus was told to him by Paul, who never met him either. He had a dream vision of a resurrected Jesus on the road to Damacsus.

      April 22, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  17. Richard

    Put an imaginary person on trial for acts that were never comitted, is this like legislation to protect people of the U.S. by Congess sponsored by corporate lobbyist ?

    April 22, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • Rachel

      Richard, grow up and get away from your pipe dream. You are pathetic.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
    • Richard

      Rachel, thanks so much for promoting primitive tribal religious beliefs one step removed from pagan worshipping cannabilism, what an enlighten crowd.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
  18. Born Again Birther

    It looks like Jesus is at an amusement park, standing in front of the Ferris Wheel.

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

    Well Jesus is very lucky that he did not have this lawyer as his defendant because he would have ruined Gods plan of salvation for all mankind. If Jesus had got the innocent verdict I'm sure he would have had to take his own life in order to die for our sins and that would not have made as compelling a story.

    April 22, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
    • Born Again Birther

      If what they say about Jesus is true, he couldn't afford a good defense attorney.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
    • jimvsmij

      If what Christians believe about Jesus is true then Jesus wouldn't have needed a defense attorney. He would have been a better lawyer than any then or now. So he choose not to defend himself so he could be crucified and not have to kill himself.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
  20. Nancy M. B.

    Fables and fairy tales.

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

      ok. prove that they are fairy tales and fables.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • Richard

      Prove they aren't

      April 22, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • Robert

      really,
      Actually it's your job to prove he did exsist. You can NEVER prove a negative...

      April 22, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • jimvsmij

      @ really – The burden of proof does not fall on Nancy. It falls on those who made up the stories. Just like nobody can prove that the Spaghetti Monster – (May you be touched by his noodley appendage) does not exist.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
    • Born Again Birther

      Nancy: Prove that it's a fairy tale? Sure. It's a story of magic and miracles, with no physical evidence that it ever took place. And it has been retold many times, each with different episodes, characters and details.

      And it has been used to frighten children and others who are not capable of rational thought.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • jeebs

      Robert,

      If you cant prove a negative, what does that say about the stance that God does not exist. That is a negative position. So basically, you are saying that you can't prove that he doesn't exist and that the position that he doesn't exist is indefensable. The burden of proof would be on you, and you can't defend your position by your own admission.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
    • jimvsmij

      Check out what Jeebs is saying.

      Now do you understand why the United States is falling being the rest of the world in science and scientific thinking?
      I'd laugh if it wasn't so sad....

      April 22, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
    • listenclose

      non jews, trying 2 decide on the fate of someone they already worship, in a modern society, where blaspehemy isn't a crime. trying 2 hold a trial using modern judicial practice but not modern law or moral standards. Pointless Fantasy Jesus wanted to die he told all his people repeatedly he was going to die. Jesus followers even told him repeatedly if he went back to jeruselem he would be killed and he responded would you deny me my destiny essentially. So this is a arguement of futility!!!

      April 22, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
    • Terre

      @jeebs It's not a negative. Too bad there are no intelligent Christians around here.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
    • jimvsmij

      Jeebs, listen... I'll talk slowly so even you can understand. The default for anything is that it is untrue until shown to be true. If you come out and say something to the world, such as the religion of the flying spaghetti monster, it does not suddenly become true just because you all of a sudden start saying it is. The default is that the Flying Spaghetti Monster does not exist until someone shows that it does.
      Do you understand?

      April 22, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • CarrieCNN

      jeebs,

      If you cant prove a negative, what does that say about the stance that a Flying Spaghetti Monster does not exist. That is a negative position. So basically, you are saying that you can't prove that FSM doesn't exist and that the position that he doesn't exist is indefensible. The burden of proof would be on you, and you can't defend your position by your own admission.

      Do you see how ridiculous that argument is? You can insert anything there...unicorns, UFO's, Santa Claus....etc. Anyone can claim anything exists, the burden of proof is always on the one claiming the existence of something for which there is no proof. Otherwise we would all be forced to believe in leprechauns because we can't prove they DON'T exist. Ridiculous.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • St. Thomas

      Really Robert. I think you just proved there is negative in your statement.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:37 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.