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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. J Wilson

    This "church" is sooo lost, it is sad. They are totally ignorant of the Bible and the Good News of Christ. First of all, their entire charade accepts the premise that Jesus blasphemed by calling himself the Son of God. That no one in the congregation protested this point demonstrates a lack of understanding on the part of the church and its leadership. Jesus did not commit blasphemy! He was indeed the Son of God. Second, the trial held by representatives of the Sanhedrin was in violation of the law given to them by Moses. Therefore, the verdict was likewise illegitimate. In other words, Jesus was bereft of his liberty and life without due process. Ergo, the sentencing phase was illegitimate to begin with. Third, the Law of Moses required that a court which passes a death sentence reconvene one more time to reconsider the verdict before the death sentence is carried out. Thus, the denial of Jesus’ God-given, unalienable rights was a further violation of the natural “rule of law” by the “rule of men.”

    That said, the foolishness, the folly of this mock trial makes a mockery of YAHWEH and HIS predetermined plan to ransom all mankind from our sins. Again, the ignorant fools in this church accepted the premise that Jesus DID commit blasphemy. Why is this point so important? If Jesus IS guilty of Blasphemy, then he is a sinner and incapable of paying the price that every man must face for sin. For the wages of sin is death. But Jesus, who never committed any sin became sin in order to pay the debt of death that we owe on our behalf.

    Furthermore, the death on the cross was the penalty for our sin. To commute GOD’s sentence of death for his son for the sake and salvation of all mankind to life without parole is arrogant vanity. Each “member of the juries” present who cast a ballot to vacate the death penalty in this case is putting him/herself on GOD’s Judgment Seat: a seat reserved only for Jesus Himself.

    They themselves have committed Blasphemy to question the wisdom of YAHWEH. They must repent and seek HIS forgiveness.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:21 am |
  2. NJ Bob

    Ho hum. Another stupid article about religion by CNN. Every moment spent on religion, whether just thinking about it or actually practicing it, has been wasted. Can you really afford to be so profligate?

    April 24, 2011 at 7:10 am |
  3. flek

    I would have invoked jury nullification, and had the case thrown out!

    April 24, 2011 at 3:32 am |
  4. C i

    Did you put all JEWS on the Jury? You know, Just to make it authentic. White People are so stupid they still would give their Savior LIFE IN PRISON. Wake up you IDIOTS. Jesus said 'Woe to you lawyers" and you stupid white sheeple LOVE THE JEWS AND THEIR ANTICHRIST SYSTEM. YOU FOOLS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    April 24, 2011 at 1:43 am |
  5. Casey138

    Why is this news?

    April 24, 2011 at 12:59 am |
    • Willow

      Because it's Easter weekend and CNN is trying to get a few more hits on its website by posting human interest stories.

      April 24, 2011 at 7:33 am |
  6. ken

    Jesus was a Nazorean, Nazareth wasn't a town until 200 CE.

    April 24, 2011 at 12:08 am |
    • rustyw

      Wrong! Nazareth is mentioned in John chapter 1, and papyri of portions of the gospel of John have been dated at about 150 CE. So Nazareth existed when John wrote his gospel, which was well before 200 CE. Writers of the era who tried to discredit Christian writers did not accuse John of error here. Both John and Matthew were eyewitnesses of the events of the life of Jesus, by the way.

      April 24, 2011 at 1:17 am |
    • Sally Li

      Ken, you are absolutely correct. The town was called Sepphoris until at least 100 AD, more or less. The Gospel of John, in somewhat the form we have today, dates back to 125 AD, but that is only the Rylands fragment, which deals with the Crucifixion, and which covers a part of the Gospel of John which is also common to the Acts of Pilate, and somewhat similar to the Book of Luke. The full Gospel of John in the "original" Greek dates to about the time Nazareth became known as such, and the reason why the town began to be known as Nazareth is because there were a higher concentration of Christians living there than anywhere else. In fact, the Hebrew word for Christian is Nosrit, and the origin of that word correlates to that fact. The original Gospels, written in Aramaic, were destroyed by Church leaders at around the time the
      Greek versions of the Gospels began to monopolize Church liturgy.

      April 24, 2011 at 3:25 am |
  7. ken

    Blasphemy? Jesus was on trial for sedition. If he had been tried for blasphemy, the Temple elders would have just stoned him to death (they did this regularly). The Reasons the Romans trieds him was political, they never crucified anyone for religious reasons.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
    • rustyw

      1) Jesus was first tried by the Jewish high court and found guilty of blasphemy. 2) However, the Jewish leaders feared the reaction of the people if they killed him, so they got the Romans to do it for them. You are correct, thought, the priests changed the charge before Pilate because the Romans did not care about religious disputes.

      April 24, 2011 at 1:09 am |
  8. Greg

    There is no reason whatsoever to call Jesus a historical person. The first secular record of Jesus didn't come until 50 years after his alleged death. That came from a discreditted historian. That would be like first hearing of Hitler in 1995, John Lennon wouldn't be heard about until 2030 and Michael Jackson until 2059.

    The god of the bible is poven to not exist. This whole excersize is a lark. The christians posting here that Jesus was a historical person are deluded morons.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
  9. Phil

    These days they would drug a person with haldol and put them in a psychiatric ward...and that's exactly where they'd belong. The only person named Jesus is the mexican guy who mows my lawn.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:21 pm |
  10. jsaiditfirst

    Proverbs 8:22 eloquently describes Jesus endearing love for his father who "produced me". I would appreciate the opinion of others who are able to explain why Jesus, who is equal to God in accordance with the trinity, identifies himself as having been created.

    GOD himself produced me as the beginning of his way, the earliest of his achievements of long ago. 23 From time indefinite I was installed, from the start, from times earlier than the earth. 24 When there were no watery deeps I was brought forth as with labor pains, when there were no springs heavily charged with water. 25 Before the mountains themselves had been settled down, ahead of the hills, I was brought forth as with labor pains, 26 when as yet he had not made the earth and the open spaces and the first part of the dust masses of the productive land. 27 When he prepared the heavens I was there; when he decreed a circle upon the face of the watery deep, 28 when he made firm the cloud masses above, when he caused the fountains of the watery deep to be strong, 29 when he set for the sea his decree that the waters themselves should not pass beyond his order, when he decreed the foundations of the earth, 30 then I came to be beside him as a master worker, and I came to be the one he was specially fond of day by day, I being glad before him all the time, 31 being glad at the productive land of his earth, and the things I was fond of were with the sons of men.

    April 23, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  11. JR Jake

    I dare say, this time around Jesus would not remain silent and might even represent himself. My guess, there would not be a shortage of lawyers wanting to represent him. From the lofty high powered to the ACLU, every church organization would have their best lawyers clamoring to get to the truth. Now that you could make a trilogy of films or at least a mini-series from, ya think. Happy Easter to you and your families.

    April 23, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  12. Tim Rigney

    "CRUCIFY HIM!!!"

    April 23, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • No One Is Safe

      ian gillan really rocked his part, but i always thought murray head was the true star of the album...

      April 23, 2011 at 10:52 pm |
  13. Tim Rigney

    "WE HAVE NO KING BUT CAESAR!!!!!" 😉

    April 23, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  14. Adrienne

    Today, the people in power who claim to be Christians would label Jesus a communist atheist Nazi Jew and do everything they could to withhold funds from a health care facility that would care for Mary so she could give birth to her child, even if it were only in a barn. They are as ignorant as a child with a loaded gun.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  15. Jim

    One- How many witnesses are required for a event to be a historical fact? – We were not there Yet it is reported that 5000 were fed with 5 loves & 2 fish. We were not there When Jesus Healed the sick, walked on the water & Peter Joined him but the other 11 disciples were Same with the raising of Lazerus from the dead. You have only 3 choices after examining all the evidence-
    Jesus was either a Liar, Lunitic, or Exactly who He said he was – LORD.
    2. Prophecy by God's own standard has to be 100%- 99.9999999999999999999% won't do .What did Jesus say of our time??? & Is what he said coming to pass?

    April 23, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  16. tallulah13

    Adelina/Fredrika/Justina: Just who do you think my "countrymen" are? Some of my forebears came over on the Mayflower. They WERE christian Europeans and puritans (just not the same bunch that destroyed the Pequots, though they did do their own damage). Also among my forebears are members of the Cherokee tribe and the Seminole tribes, who had their homes and livelihoods taken and destroyed by christian Europeans. I like to study American history. My ancestors lived it.

    I wonder where are you are from, that you are so ignorant of the effect of christian Europeans on the Americas. I doubt the native people who have struggled to reclaim their beliefs and ident ities, even after they were robbed of their ancestral homes and ways of life, would agree with you that christian Europeans have been a positive force. MILLIONS of lives were ended or destroyed by christian Europeans, most because of the accidental introduction of unfamiliar diseases, but many others by the simple conquest of greedy people who thought they had god on their side.

    As artist said, you need to learn some history.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • tallulah13

      That was a response to a much earlier post. sorry about the bad placement. I'll go put it where it belongs.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  17. Robert

    Jesus does not die, no resurrection, no Christianity, as a belief in resurrection is necessary to be a Christian

    April 23, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • Jeff B.

      Robert-
      Very few people deny the EXISTENCE of Jesus; thus, your equating him to the to the fairy, etc. is not valid. This trial had NOTHING to do with whether or not he was Messiah, or the son of G-d.
      Your post makes you sound...well, ignorant.

      April 23, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Charles

      Jeff, the Jesus of the Bible is a pretty far cry from the Yeshu who may have actually lived about two thousand years ago.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  18. Richard

    The jury would give him the same fair trial received by Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, and God.

    April 23, 2011 at 9:37 am |
  19. Letoatreides

    Interesting. The motive of the lawyer was to do a mock retrial of Jesus to promote his cause for repealing capital punishment. The retrial omitted the historic, cultural and legal context of the actual event of Jesus's trial. It's also ironic that this mock retrial would save Jesus's life while the reality is that his death and later resurrection led to our salvation.

    April 23, 2011 at 8:54 am |
  20. AmericanTeen

    Sorry but there is no such as evolution because God created the earth 6,000 years ago. It took him 6 days and on the 7th day God rested. You are just ignorant if you think otherwise. Give your soul to Christianity because if you don't you will goto hell for eternity and that is a Fact. Amen.

    April 23, 2011 at 8:12 am |
    • Charles

      You, my dear, are just regurgitating seventh-day adventist doctrine formulated about a hundred years ago. Now, that said, if you wish to back up your assertion, please be so kind as to refute, with reason and physical evidence, every branch of science.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Charles

      One should also note that Jewish biblical scholarship considers literal interpretation appropriate only for children and the mentally disabled.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Sari in Vegas

      And the approval you are so desperately seeking from friends/family/culture will always be conditional to your acting like a good little parrot. It will be conditional to a lot more than that, and your ability to make your own decisions about life, right and wrong, and how to treat others will be rendered null for as long as you keep enslaving yourself to their opinions.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I strongly suspect that this was really written by American Troll.

      April 23, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Nacho1

      We need to honor Jesus and not defame him and not ridicule him..............he is probably the most decent human being who ever existed on this planet........whether he was son of man or son of God does not matter..............he was DECENT...........and HONORABLE...........look around you.........you will find no one like him ever again on this planet............

      April 24, 2011 at 1:12 am |
    • jsaiditfirst

      AMERICAN TEEN
      Your faith could move mountains, your logic, however, lacks sound reasoning. I believe as you do in the creation account, and no true christian would support even a fractional part of secular science that would dispute Gods hand in the matter.
      That being said, science (the science of theoretical testing) cannot be dismissed in its entirety simply because its science by man. Afterall, we are wonderfully made and possess a marvelous desire and ability to explore and to learn.
      Gods gift made it possible for newton to identify the effects of gravity, einstiens relativity of space and the understanding of atoms and molocules in the world around us. It is also a fact that science concurs with the order of creation as it's described in the opening chapter of the genesis account as being the correct order of sequence neccessary for the universe, the earth and mankind to have come about. Now ask yourself this: How could 66 books with 44 writers written over a span of 3,500 years possibly be that accurate?
      And theres more! The book of Isaiah was written in 732 BCE, and yet he wrote these inspired words :
      There is One who is dwelling above the circle of the earth, the dwellers in which are as grasshoppers, the One who is stretching out the heavens just as a fine gauze.
      No science is needed to recognize that this man was devinely inspired to write of things he couldn't possibly know. And its no discredit towards God that science has managed to accurately measure the age of the earth and the universe to within reasonable estimations.
      In his word, the bible, God quite often gives symbolic or figurative meaning to certian words based on the contest of the scripture. For instance, in Genesis 2:17 God tells Adam: But as for the tree of the knowledge of good and bad you must not eat from it, for in the day you eat from it you will positively die.”
      Although God stated "in that day" we know from further accounts in Genesis and other books of the bible that Adam was over 930 years old when he died. He was dead spiritually, yes, in Gods view, because he disobeyed, but he lived on for some time.
      Now consider this scripture found in Genesis chapter 2, verse 4: This is a history of the heavens and the earth in the time of their being created, in the day that God made earth and heaven.
      If we considered this scripture from a literal standpoint, we would conclude that everything was created in a single day and not six, as you believe. Again, this is God speaking in a figurative manner. And on this subject I just want to conclude by saying that the bible is replete with so many other narratives that use the word "day" in a figurative or symbolic manner that it's essential for any person who truly believes in God to at least investigate the matter.
      And with regards to those who would believe we ascended from apes and monkeys, don't allow yourself to be drawn into their rancid debate because the theory of evolution (and it is strictly a theory) and the concept of atheizm are both self serving ideas which are best left to those weak minded fools who would rush in.

      I would like to bore you with one more thought. When it comes to hell, one would do well to scrutinize where the use of the word hell is being used, likewise, in a figurative sense. If you know your bible, and I think you do, recall the account of the rich man and lazarus, and how the rich man (described as burning in hell) begged lazarus to "dip" his finger in water in order to cool the rich mans tongue. Obviousely if you were literally burning in a real hell, a single drop of water would not be sufficient to cool you off from the flames of purgatory, and therefore the contexts of this burning fire was symbolic in nature.
      We would all do well to ask ourselves this: How could a God of love, whose primary attribute is Love, allow humans whom he loves so dearly that allowed his own son to be sacrificed in our behalf, permit satan, who fully opposes him, to torture us for eternity.

      Proverbs 9:10 says: "The fear of GOD is the beggining of wisdom" The kind of fear thats spoken of here is a loving fear and not of the dreadful sort that others might have us think. In fact James 4:8 tells us: "Draw close to God, and he will draw close to YOU". And as we draw closer to God our relationship with him grows, and so does our love and affection for him, and from this we begin to experience the wisdom which God so lovingly imparts to us. And we need wisdom from God in order to discern truth from lies. In this case the truth for you is that evolution is a deeply entrenched lie and that atheist are "dead" wrong. And there are many other impofrtant truths as well, including that a loving God would never contaminate his righteousness with evil acts such as allowing humans to suffer a horribly eternal death over and over and over. And where does such a lie come from? Well, who has the most to gain by our being convinced that God is not a God of love?
      SATAN!
      Take the time if you will to read the following scriptures which are from a source you know and trust. Read them and discern for yourself what the truth is concerning hell.

      Respectfully

      Ps. 146:4: “His spirit goes out, he goes back to his ground; in that day his thoughts* do perish.” (*“Thoughts,” KJ, 145:4 in Dy; “schemes,” JB; “plans,” RS, TEV.)
      Eccl. 9:5, 10: “The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all . . . All that your hand finds to do, do with your very power, for there is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol,* the place to which you are going.” (If they are conscious of nothing, they obviously feel no pain.
      Ezek. 18:4: “The soul* that is sinning—it itself will die.”

      April 24, 2011 at 1:43 am |
    • Z

      Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It looks like you'll always be ignorant; you claim to already know everything, and your version of the story can never change.

      April 24, 2011 at 3:26 am |
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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.