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. dan

    Check some historic facts? There is a difference between myths and history.


    April 29, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  2. Alexis

    Of course, in a country with free speech, blasphemy wasn't considered a crime punishable by death. Yes, Jesus would keep preaching if he had lived, what he was saying was a much more serious issue in his time, and he knew the penalty for what he was doing. Did he deserve to die? Morally, no. Lawfully? I'm sorry to say he did. He willfully, knowingly and repeatedly broke the law for which the punishment was death, case closed. If the whole purpose of his life was to die for everyone's sins people should be thanking the ones that killed him, shouldn't they?

    April 29, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Well I'm certainly not thanking them! Bloody lot of trouble caused by all that!

      April 29, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
  3. angel

    Jesus was sent here as a man to save us from ourselves to take our sins and give us life if we choose to believe and accept him into our lives and follow him until our death for eternal life in heaven-he was meant to die for us no matter what-his destiny was planned this way-his whole life was a miracle from the virgin birth to his death on the cross. He did it for us-it was inevitable! i truly believe the bible-there would be no stopping the inevitable even if it were to happen in this day and age. most ppl now would be so scared of a man doing all theses "miracles" that they would just want his life to end because of ignorance and no faith of why he is really here!

    April 29, 2011 at 8:38 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Actually if Jesus came to the USA to be martyred, he'd have to murder someone in a death penalty state, then sit in a prison for 20 years before being put to death. If he started performing miracles, some enterprising soul would just start selling tickets.

      April 29, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  4. Ex-atheist

    Last night one dumb SOB atheist that i know from StarBuck ran acrossed the highway as fool he is and he got ran over by a motorcyclist who had no way avoiding this foolist atheist. One gentleman rushed to the spot to help him while waiting for emergency crew.
    The most interesting thing to me was how he cried out for help. Atheist screamed in pain, cried out "Oh my God"! I told him to ask God's forgiveness for all his sins and God will forgive him and he will have life in the next life. When emergency crew arrived he passed. Hope he will be ok, if he meant what he screamed for.

    April 28, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
    • BobbyDazzler

      Do you swear on your immortal soul and risk of everlasting damnation, that this is true in all respects? If you don't, I will assume you are farting dust.

      April 28, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
  5. I Yah Wa Ska

    When Christ returns, she will be crucified. Again.
    Everyone gets a turn being Caiaphas.
    Such a sense of humor with that Great Attractor!

    April 28, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
    • I Yah Wa Ska

      You will surely burn in hell for that remark!

      April 28, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
    • I Yah Wa Ska

      Whatever! zealot-freak....

      April 28, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
  6. The Woof

    Again we see our Saviour condemned on basically no charges other than He was going against the status quo. The more things change the more they remain the same.

    April 28, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  7. notanapologist

    Hmmm...how to try Jesus? where do we start....?
    I don't know but I suspect there would be a lot of laughter and incredulity I suspect....yeah sure you were resurrected....and after that all the graves in Jerusalem opened up and the dead walked again...yeah sure.....go on...tell me another one.....!!!! cue laughter....

    oh yeah and a God who commands others to kill on his behalf to show their loyalty....where do we start on that one?

    The best trial to have is of religion itself – let the Christians prove it exists...good luck!!!!

    April 27, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
  8. SeanNJ

    Guess that explains why he had to do it 200 years ago. "He suffered through three hots and a cot for your sins" doesn't quite have the same ring to it.

    Maybe Jesus' attorney would appeal the sentence. "Dude, seriously, reconsider this. I think you need to string this guy up."

    April 27, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      Make that 2000, although even 200 years ago they might've still killed him .

      April 27, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  9. fromthewater

    Point 1. The hebrews got all their stories from the Sumerians and the Eygptians and claimed them as their own. Why is it that their stories are called myths and the Hebrews as fact????

    Point 2. How many people realise that when Pontius Pilot presented "Jesus" and Barabbas to the people and let them decide who should die, that the name Barabbas (means "son of the father") so who ever died that day would have been the "son of the father".

    April 27, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  10. Deliverance

    Yes they would convict him even today. As you can see on this CNN site (Communist News Network) you have an abundance of atheist and anti-Christ commentaries and those are the enemy (whom we are to love anyway). But sadly Christians are eager to be judgmental also and just as the religious scholars of old days did to Jeusus back then not much has changed. Today the jury would still cry... Guilty and Crucify him! Out of the jury box there would be at least two atheist calling Jesus a fairtytale sorcerer and at least four "holier than thou" so called Christians ready to render fire and brimstone judgement and probably four agnosticts who have no spirit to check with and two who could care less and would be in a hurry to get off jury duty and get home to lay on the couch and watch TV so yes, Jesus would face the same fate today.

    April 27, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  11. PhaiRo

    Lol really? This blog...really?

    People are very stupid...

    April 26, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  12. Ihaveabridgetosellyou

    I am the son of God. I am known as the as the Alpha and the Omega, Lamb of God, etc. I was born December 25th. Crucified and was resurrected three days later. can you guess who I am? Thats right, I'm Horus, son of Osirus. I pre-date Christianity by 1500 years and have returned to set the record straight. Seems some sheep herders stole all my stories and I want to make it very clear that I have nothing to do with this nonsense.
    Sincerely Yours,
    the ancient egyptions
    aka. pagans

    April 26, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
    • dan

      Sir, have you ever looked into historic facts? There is a difference between myths and history. Do you believe that the Roman Empire even existed? If you do, do farther research...don't be ignorant and not necessary to prove your supidity as many do on this topics.

      April 29, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  13. melissa

    to all you non believers out there....why are you even reading this? why do hassel Christians? part of being a Christian is spreading the Word Of God. Just like someone told it to us, its our job to make sure you've had the oppurtunity to change your heart before its too late. you try so hard to make us feel wrong or stupid...are you really trying to convince us or trying to convince yourself. we know the right answer.

    April 26, 2011 at 8:35 am |
    • Michael

      Lol @ you. You believe in magic, it makes it VERY easy for us to mock.

      April 27, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  14. Matt

    It's amazing how many commenters on this article didn't get the point of it. It's also amazing how few of them know anything about academic Biblical scholarship. Even the most skeptical scholar of the world of the Bible would laugh at the things being asserted here. Intellectual humility, charity–these are good things.

    April 25, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
  15. Quilter77

    The lawyer in this article missed the whole point. Jesus willingly died on the cross to wipe out sin. He knew His calling and gave Himself so that sin and death could be conquered. Sin and death had to be conquered so we could have open fellowship with God. Jesus died, rose, ascended and is coming again. But NOT on May 21 as Harold Camping says – the guy is just a bit off.

    I'm amazed at the seething hatred here and intolerance of Christians on this message board. Yet it is a fulfillment of prophesy because Jesus Himself said His followers would be hated for His Name's sake, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Yes, there are a lot of hypocritical and bozo Christians out there. But just because people say they are Christians doesn't mean it is true. The people from Westboro Baptist Church are NOT Christians. They are anything but Christ-like. I can go into an auto parts store, buy an oil filter and 5 quarts of oil, but it doesn't make me a mechanic. Going to church and saying you are a Christian doesn't make you a Christian. It has to do with your life and your commitment to Christ and following His Word.

    Jesus is kind, loving, merciful and gracious. But He is also holy and just. He's not some Caspar Milktoast up in the sky. One day He will come and it will be the most powerful and magnificent time in history.

    Now I will wait for all the posts that say how deluded I am and there is no God and what a stupid idiot I am........ let the tolerance of people's beliefs begin!

    April 25, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • PeterVN

      This whole scapegoat scam that the Jesus story represents was just filched from earlier supersti-tions. Nothing really new here. So your particular omnipotent ghostie needed a murder to get rid ofsins because, well, why exactly? Why not just do the forgiveness thing without the made-for-TV crucifixion bit? Seems like a pretty weak excuse for a god that you've got there.

      April 25, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Lycidas

      @PeterVN- I will ask you what sooo many atheists ask on here. Prove it.

      April 25, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • Ihaveabridgetosellyou

      @lycidas Here's your proof.


      April 26, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • Danielle


      April 27, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • New Wicca


      Please post that link!! I've searched youtube and can't find it! I have LOTS of people to pass that information on to! 🙂

      April 27, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • HorusHAHAHAAHA

      A video with no sources to cross reference can hardly be called credible. If you want me to take that as truth, then I must have to believe that cats can dance and sing, computers really do come alive when we are out of the house and fight, etc... You see my point though... I can make a video claiming that I am king of the world and that everyone bows to me everywhere I go and I could probably arrange all that to happen, if only for a couple "takes" but you would never believe it unless it had credible sources...

      Horus was never crucified, Mithra was only crucified in the Roman version of Mithras (they stole Mithra from the Iranian peninsula) and the crucifixion wasn't added until well after Christianity had been established. Do a little research in unbiased places and you'll see that the stories fall apart.

      April 28, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • angel

      agree–you know that Christianity is all about faith-believing that we will have eternal life if we just have faith – in my mind i have nothing to lose by believing and being faithful-not perfect, I am human-but if all people would just TRY to follow the commandments and help your neighbors and love your enemies and be joyful happy positive no matter what is going on in your life-the world would not be where we are now! ppl have a choice-God does not force anyone to follow the Christian life–even if the bible is not true-i will have lived a better life, maybe changing other ppls lives, be a blessing here on earth-nothing to lose at all!!!

      April 29, 2011 at 8:52 am |
  16. Andrew Kilian

    I'll point out that the prosecutor overlooked Luke 19:27 "Whosoever does not wish me to be their king, bring them before me and slay them." Jesus himself was for the death penalty for others as well as himself. Also in order to fulfill his divinity he would have to die in order to be ressurected. Jesus knew as much and willingly chose to be arrested and martyred to fulfill the Blood sacrifice to Yahweh; to die for his followers sins (aka commit suicide). If this ruling stood 2000 years ago Jesus wishes of being martyred and resurrected would never have happened and Christianity wouldn't be what it is today. It might have gone the way of Mithraism, that is to say, pass into Myth instead of a becoming living religion.

    April 25, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • Jen

      Please don't misquote. Luke19:27 is part of a parable, citing only the norm of the time and age. It doesn't necessarily mean Jesus was "for the death penalty." He did not "commit suicide", he was not "martyred" - he did what he had to do in order to redeem mankind.

      April 25, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Jace

      Andrew Kilian's response nailed it. (no pun intended) Without the human sacrifice and belief in the undead this religion never would have made it. Jesus learned that from the prophet before him, Simon, who failed to die as a martyr. So if our jury today left him alive and imprisoned then Christianity would never have happened. It's a shame that the Romans were so hasty in dealing out death.

      April 27, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
    • Bryan Gainey

      II Find it funny that such a country that was founded on such a strong foundation of Faith upon the Word of God can have people like this in it that refuse to believe that God exists! Talk about ironic! Hey Andrew, why don't you move to China?! I think your opinion will be quite excepted over there 🙂

      April 29, 2011 at 10:50 pm |
  17. NoSacredCow

    The ridiculousness of this "mock trial" is not that the historicity of "Jesus" is unproven. (Tacitus btw was not an eyewitnesses but only wrote about Nero and his blaming the Chrestians for the fire that burned Rome, he only repeated what was spoken among the mobs not from a historical viewpoint) The ridiculousness is that the United States laws are not based on the bible. This is a secular country as much as the "christians" try to spin it otherwise.

    We do not have blasphemy laws. We still have quite a few "blue laws" on the books from days gone by when non-believers weren't allowed a voice. But one by one those laws are beinjg removed with challenges on church-state separation.

    Clearly Jesus would not be put on trial unless there was mony and a ponzi scheme involved. His followers on the other hand might be remanded for psychiatric evaluation.

    April 25, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  18. Jim

    It kind of sounds like the whole "trial" and article are a thinly veiled attack on the death penalty. However, it's important to remember that Christ lived in a repressive society (Roman rule and lots of oversight by Jewish leaders of the day) without a lot of respect for the concept of freedom of religion. He was perceived as a threat to key elements within that society, so they painted him as a threat to the "peace of the realm." SImilar things now primarily happen in the pseudo-theocracies in the middle east.

    April 25, 2011 at 8:36 am |
  19. Jorge

    The day that "blasphemy", or any other religious dissidence becomes a felonious crime in this country, I will gladly take up arms against the government, though it will assure my early death.

    April 25, 2011 at 7:45 am |
    • Adelina

      People can die for a lot of stupid things.

      April 26, 2011 at 12:19 am |
    • Adelina

      Freedom was won to freely worship God, not to obtain stupid rights to blaspheme Him. Both freedom of speeches and the laws against blasphemy are misapplied in many nations because humans are evil. One needs to die for a noble cause, not for a right to mock other people's religions maliciously. That's stupid.

      April 26, 2011 at 12:24 am |
    • Michael

      @Adelina We orignally fled Britain because they saw opposing religion as blasphemy, you would of stayed in Britain I see, as you are on the attack on the freedom of speech.

      April 27, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • thack

      Jesus would have been seen as a terrorist, and they would be right. Jesus is nothing more than what modern day terrorists represent.

      April 27, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
    • Haik

      Well picking up arms goes against what the Bible teaches. So picking up arms for your faith contradicts what you learn from the Bible. Those who kill by the sword die by the sword right?

      May 3, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
  20. there is no god

    there's 100 times more evidence that julius ceasar existed than there is evidence of jesus' existence.

    there is no god.

    April 25, 2011 at 4:54 am |
    • Paul

      One day you will change.

      April 25, 2011 at 7:21 am |
    • Floyd

      what exactly are you multiplying from then? must be something...perhaps a shred of proof. You cannot so arrogantly make that statement if there is some proof.

      April 26, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Dan Kinsman

      I'm so sure God and Jesus exist I would gladly die for Jesus and my faith in God.

      April 27, 2011 at 9:08 am |
    • Michael

      @Dan, You should seek professional help.

      April 27, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Alex B-P

      I like the way 'there is no god' thinks. Also, he is correct. There is NO evidence that your 'god' existed, exists, or ever will. Besides, how do you know that the bible wasn't a Collection of fairy tales or old legends? Besides, it is ignorant to say that just because something was written in ancient times means that it must be factual. What if it is a novel, with a plot centered around morals, or simply for entertainment of the wealthy?

      April 27, 2011 at 3:30 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.