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. Carbon Copy 1

    I have a sincere question, If Jesus was the father the son and the holy gost i.e (G.o.d), then God gave his only son to die for his people,then that means god died along inthe body of Jesus. So now who was the other who send him then. You have to be alive to have a soul not dead. The living has a soul, your Memory is your Soul, when dead all memories are wiped out and the dead knows nomore. However the living lives with the Memories Good or Bad since the soul is still alive in the living.Let the DEAD bury DEAD..

    April 24, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
    • john

      you are thinking like a human. you cannot get the answers you need without doing some deep soul searching and exploration of your heart. i mean unless you're just being sarcastic.

      April 25, 2011 at 2:05 am |
  2. Hadrian

    Execute him? Not likely. If an exec gets a whiff of his actions, he'd get a reality TV show instead.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:47 pm |
  3. william

    “I think that story is very direct that we don’t have the moral authority” to execute prisoners, Osler said.

    If that's so then what moral authority do you have to jail somebody for the rest of their life ?

    Or even 30 days ?

    What authority do you have to put anybody on trial for any crime ? Are you also not a criminal ?

    April 24, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
  4. john316

    Fox News is the new Comedy Central....all laughs...all the time......

    April 24, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
  5. Ben Dover

    How can you put an imaginary person who never existed on trial?

    April 24, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  6. Ruderalis

    The Devil is my savior. Without him, my lizard species would not exist. We are also waiting for the second coming of Christ. It will be a battle he will lose, and humanity will be free to do drugs and have s e x with each other with no guilt. Welcome to the new world you weak Catholics! Mua ha haaa!

    April 24, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • john

      sorry man, but this is the dumbest thing i've read in a long time. hope that doesnt come off sounding like im being a jerk. but its just dumb sounding.

      April 25, 2011 at 2:02 am |
  7. No longer need a tin foil hat

    See youtube video
    Jesus, son of Cleopatra & Ceasar
    True hidden history.

    April 24, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  8. Pris

    First of all, Jesus never blasphemed because He IS God. Second, Jesus layed down His life willingly (for us), no one took it from Him. The Scriptures substantiate this, but you will have to read for yourselves–don't go by heresay!

    April 24, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • Ruderalis

      How can "God" be born AFTER the existence of man?

      April 24, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Christfollower

      @Ruderalis- That's a good question. I hope you are asking it with the desire to find the true answer. If so, read on:
      It was God's plan all along to have Jesus, who is God as the second member of the Trinity, die for our sins. Acts 2:23 says as much. God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit have always existed in the form of three separate persons, but having the very same nature, comprising one God. This concept is found throughout scripture, clearly set down, but not clear at all as to how this is possible. We as humans cannot fully comprehend the mysteries of our God. And that is how I like it. Do you think it is reasonable to be able to completely understand the God who created the universe and everything in it? That is the height of pride to desire this God-like knowledge. It is too much for us. We have received enough information to come to repentance. It comes down to our desire. We have been created with the free will to reject God as He has revealed Himself through His scriptures. We also have the free will to come to repentance and faith in our creator who loved us so much that he gave His only begotten Son, that whoever would believe in Him, should not perish, but have eternal life.
      Jesus was born of a virgin, Mary, through the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is both fully God and fully man. He never lost his Divinity while here on Earth. He came to fulfill the work of redemption. His plan all along was to die in our place.
      He was also raised from the dead, since only his human flesh died, not his Divine nature.
      Jesus was raised on the third day (celebrated on Easter Sunday which is today by the way!) so we also have the hope of eternal life through life given by Him by faith in Him. God gives us the desire of our heart either way. Either we will desire to be with Him and so he grants us that right through faith in Jesus, or we desire to reject Him and he grants us that desire by not forcing Himself upon us. Either way we get what we want.

      I pray that these truths would be confirmed in your own heart and that you would be spurred on by the Holy Spirit to continue to pursue God. If you would like to accept God's gift of salvation through His Son Jesus, pray something like this:

      "LORD God, I am definitely a sinner and unable to stand in your Holy presence the way I am. I accept Jesus into my heart to cover my sins with the blood He shed on the cross, so I may stand in your presence without sin in your sight. Thank you for being a God of not only justice but also of mercy. Amen and Happy Easter!

      April 24, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
  9. Michele

    A modern jury would sentence Jesus to death because He is the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow. Jesus Christ is the Sacrificial Lamb by which humanity was redeemed. There can be no redemption of sin with remission of the Blood of Jesus. God is infallible and His Word is immutable, so no matter what epoch we would be in, the Word stands and Jesus had to die, so He could rise again and we could live. So, even in a modern appellate court, the sentence is the same. (I wrote the "The Trial of Jesus" which was produced by the Christian Culture Center in New York City in 2001 to rave reviews and scholarly debate. The play is available for production.)

    April 24, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  10. BibleClown

    We'd do what we always do when a patient presents with delusions of grandeur and says he is Jesus Christ, Son of Jehovah: medicate him and confine him to an asylum. These days He'd be lucky not to be labelled a "liberal" and given a lobotomy.

    April 24, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  11. P

    I still don't know what the actual point of the trial was. To prove that people can be persuasive? To show lawyers have to go against their personal beliefs? To show that, if Jesus were to be tried for something today (something that actually made sense) that he would actually not be the "Jesus" that we know Jesus to be, since he wouldn't be executed, meaning he wouldn't rise, and so on. Well, I guess he would, 60 some odd years later, or sooner if he got shanked by an inmate, or killed in a riot, or shot during a botched escape, preferably one in which a character played by Morgan Freeman would aid him until he was shot as well. Truly a gripping story.

    April 24, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  12. KingTesticus

    so this "trial" basically undoes everything G-d planned to provide as a means of salvation for humanity. Jesus was meant to die, He was the perfect sacrifice... because the ONLY consequences for sin is DEATH, period. and because of this, the Living G-d knew not a single human being would be able to reach up to such an impossible standard. so He subjected Himself to His own law. IN OUR PLACE! so by having this mock trial, you are unraveling the perfect plan dreamed up by Someone way smarter than you. and besides... do you seriously think prison walls could hold Jesus? a man who could walk on water? yeah, sure.

    April 24, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • myke

      Just one question.king: what happens if you type the.full word God? I.m still here. lets get REALLY wild and use all lowercase: god, god, god.... i'm still here!

      April 24, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  13. Roderick

    So, if Jesus wasn't nailed to a cross, how would he have fulfilled the need to "pay for our sins"? The point of Jesus' crucifixion is that he was the "innocent" dying in place of the guilty. Being given life in prison would not have met the requirements and would have made the sacrifice less effective if not altogether ineffective.

    I would have been embarassed to have been a member of any of those "juries" where no one pointed this out.

    April 24, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  14. Stu

    How many of you would gladly die for something you KNEW was a load of BS? Those of you who do not believe the Bible are asking us to believe that several of the desciples and apostles (the two words are not the same, though these days they are used interchangably) did exactly that. These are men for the most part, though there were women too who followed Jesus, though we all think of the twelve, there were hundreds who followed very closely, and thousands to tens of thousands who followed, when they could. They saw the Miracles, but lets just say for a minute that the Miracles were all tricks. Do complete research, and please do it in totally pagan sources, on what was done to a person in a Roman scurging. It was not uncommon for someones intestines to actually spill out of the body cavity, due to the fact that they used sharp hooks made of bone. After that, the beatings, and there was a Jewish beating, and then a much more sever Roman beating prior to the scurging. Then, the Crucifixion, and the spear pearcing. Do you really think that back in the days before Intensive care units, antibiotics, and the like, that you could put a person who just came off a 40 day fast in a cave, and lets even say the fast was a lie, do you think you could put a person in this medical condition in a cave, and a few days later, have him walking around with only some minor scars? How about infection, and even on antibiotics, a person who crashes a motorcycle today will not get his road rash gone in a few days. Do you really think that if his friends saw that happen, that they would take part in pretending that he really died, and then came back, and then be willing to die for that LIE? Dont forget, that several of them were also beaten, tortured, crucified, and the like. Do you think that people were that stupid back then, that they could have a friend for three years, and then not realize that another guy is walking around pretending to be their dead friend. They may not have had TV and smart phones, but they were not stupid, I would even argue that they were smarter than many people today, especially street smarts. If you want to live your pagan life, and worship rabbits, dirt, mother earth, or something else, I may try to convince you that you are incorrect, but you always have the choice to do so. Do not deny the truth just because you want to not accept it. I have no doubt that the historical record clearly proves that Jesus died and came back. That is the difference. The Christian God died for us, and the moslem god asks his people to kill for him.

    April 24, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • myke

      You, my friend, and people like you, are the reason tens of MILLIONS of people have been killed. I believe the saying "judge not lest ye be judged" might have shown up at least once in your holy book. maybe you need to focus on that message instead of focusing on the supernatural crap.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • CM

      Jim Jones talked hundreds into dying for a lie. Remember Heaven's Gate and the Hale-Bopp cult? People see what they want and are willing to die to prove it all the time.

      April 24, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
    • hehe101

      but, alas my good sir... God, Adoni, and Allah (did I spell it right?) are the same person.

      April 24, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
    • CHRIS

      When I was a young child, my parents told me that a fat man in a red suit would bring me presents every December 25. The presents were always under the tree when I woke up. Santa must be real.

      April 25, 2011 at 1:02 am |
  15. Jackie E

    “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” Romans 10:9-10. “For the wages of sin is death….” Romans 6:23. Jesus is God and there is no other way people. Repent!

    April 24, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  16. Z

    Jesus was a zombie

    April 24, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Hoang

      Zombie Jesus! I believe that more than anything about Jesus.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • john

      geesh.. thats original

      April 25, 2011 at 2:07 am |
  17. Judi

    They would have still killed Him....it was God's plan to give us a path into Eternity and Heaven. To deliver us from our sins. Scripture is plan to read: Had Satan known it was God's plan to deliver us, he would have never killed Jesus

    April 24, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • MAS

      Jesus forgave sins during his lifetime. So, there is no need for his wrongful execution to forgive sins. Besides, he was only a few hours on the cross unlike other crucified men took a few days. The point is the agony of crucifixion is minimal compared to the agony in a hellfire, and the mannequin Jesus looks Latino instead of Middle Eastern plus Gov. Pontius Pilate found him innocent in raising a reasonable doubt that was someone else instead of Jesus. Think it over.

      April 24, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
  18. Marty

    HE is risen indeed! Your belief is desired BUT not required to make it a fact! Blessings to all

    April 24, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Michele

      Amen Marty....HE LIVES. IHS

      April 24, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Robert

      And your belief doesn't make it a fact either ..

      April 24, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
  19. thegadfly

    So let me know when they put Pat Robertson on trial. Now there's someone to whose execution I would bring popcorn.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  20. Mike

    Jesus was just a prophet

    April 24, 2011 at 9:45 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.