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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. Catherine

    The same as what Pilate said and did. Pilate asked Him: What is truth? He could not see even though THE TRUTH stood before him… Jesus answered: Thou sayest that I am a king. For this was I born, and for this came I into the world; that I should give testimony to the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.

    The modern world does not want the truth. To our detriment and the detriment of future generations, we blind ourselves behind the mask of political correctness, false charity and selfishness. All we have to do is read the news, turn on the TV, listen to our politicians and our role models who are far from being examples. We believe and follow falsehood and lies and include everything except the truth Who is God. We have become godless societies.

    May 4, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  2. Bwuh?

    So let me get this straight, a bunch of Christians got together to have a modern day sentencing hearing to determine if Jesus should be put to death for something that isn't even a crime in modern day society? And they said no, he shouldn't?

    This is like a Holy renfair, or religious cosplay, right? Because my brain will e'splode if I thought that CNN actually considered this news.

    May 4, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  3. timeto wake up

    your blog is interesting because he is on trial even now going back to the bible you will see that satan and he's lies has put God on trial till today he said in isaiah 14 that he wanted to exalt his trone above the most high God and he told the angels in heaven that it was impossible to keep Gods law and because of his lies he brought 1/3 of the angels(stars) down with him and he lied to adam and eve and told them after they ate the fruit that they would not surely die . alie cuz now from the time were born we begin to die many plp wonder why God didnt kill satan then and destroy him for good! but God has been brought in a court batte where if he had killed him then the angels would have beleived satan that GOD law was impossible to keep and anyone who disobey will be immediatly die Jesus had to die so that man can be restored from sin..he came they crucified even now when we sin we are crucifying him afresh ,,alll this I found in the bible ,please dont beleive in my words ,read it for youself ask God to show you the truth ,,..he said i am the way the truth and the life ..in these last days of earths history choices will have to be made wiil stand under the God of the bible

    May 4, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  4. Mike

    Jesus was the ultimate liberal. So today the people of the US right wing would find him guilty as they hate everything liberals stand for. The religious right should admit they are followers of the old Testament, not the teachings of Jesus. This coming from a non religious person who has read the bible.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  5. Randy

    We always have commentors denying Jesus by ignoring facts or worse distorting truth.
    Here is fact: The story of Jesus changed the world. Jesus said he was the Son of the Living God. You either accept Jesus or you don't. How you are able to be honest with the facts and honest with acceptance of things many times greater than yourself and not come to the conclusion that Jesus is real he is alive and he is your only hope to salvation is beyond by understanding. I can only pray that someday you'll understand. Fortunately it can occur in your last hour.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  6. myway8

    In a court of non Zionists conspirators, Jesus case could have been dismissed and expunged. But then, Jesus had the last divine laugh. In fact, an irony indeed, Zionist Israel is making money out of their tourism industry – tourists and pilgrims (90%) christians spend money to see where Jesus came from. If not for Jesus, who would want to go to Israel? The place will be like another Dubai or Saudi.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:40 am |
  7. SAM

    I would suggest that this jury was worse than Pilate. Pilate recognized that Jesus was innocent. Pilate chose to send an innocent man to his death for political expediency.

    May 3, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
  8. Humhum Hayaha

    Clowns! Context folks, you can't project past events to current conditions nor can you retroject current events to the past – there's a little stumbling block called time. All of this legal hubris and mental masturbation.

    May 3, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • Mike

      I could argue it is also philosophically interesting in the same way you could discuss what would have happened had England sided with Germany in WWII. It is also part of a marketing strategy to get eyes on ads by CNN and Google. The more contentious the headline the better. Welcome to the 21st Century.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  9. To err is human

    People, can we stop the name throwing? I'm a Catholic, but I think to say that someone who disagrees with you will burn in hell is a bit harsh. People do not decide that sort of thing.

    To say that religion is evil is ignorant as well. The Church feeds and clothes millions of hungry, naked people everyday. Are there any Secular Humanist organisations that do the same thing? I don't think so....

    May 3, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Whether you like to hea rit or not you are going to hell for being a practicing Catholic. This is the truth whether you like it or not.
      Amen.

      May 3, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • Someone

      @To err is human,
      "Are there any Secular Humanist organisations that do the same thing? I don't think so..."

      Ever hear of the Red Cross? Doctors Without Borders? UNICEF? Just to name a few...

      May 3, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • Mike

      Mmmm. I think there are many secular organizations. They don't try to convert people, teach them that family planning is evil or take money from them even if they are poor.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Greatest is Love

      There are definitely secular humanitarian organizations, maybe stemming from the Good Samaritan, haha. We will all be responsible for what we have done and taught, and I believe it will be based on what we know and have been taught. Much too complex for humans to judge.

      Red Cross was founded by Clara Barton... below is a quote from her about her dad, a known Freemason.
      "As a patriot, he had me serve my country with all I had, even with my life if need be; as the daughter of an accepted Mason, he had me seek and comfort the afflicted everywhere, and as a Christian he charged me to honor God and love all kind. The door that nobody else will go in at, seems always to open widely for me."

      May 4, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
  10. Tonlok

    HeavenSent

    "Artist God will take pleasure in your suffering. No other person is more deserving of such.
    Amen."

    This is the reason you will not get into heaven. The hate contained within your heart and soul greatly outweighs ANY good you have done on this earth. God doesn't open his gates based soley on belief, but rather in what you have done with your time here.

    Also, to think that God takes pleasure in watching one of his children suffer, you are misguided beyond correction and boardering on islamic extremist levels of misunderstanding. God help you.

    May 3, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Mike

      Given all gods are myths the argument is moot. Why is your chosen god better than anyone else's? Also imagine you were born a few thousand years ago, you do realize with your predisposition to be gullible you could be worshiping Zeus and Athena and arguing with Greek philosophers.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  11. Cheryl

    If Jesus continued his ministry on earth today I'm afraid some of our politicians who claim to be great christians would be the first to condemn him. They don't seem to be so very fond of poor folks.

    May 3, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Mike

      The right wing hate liberals, Jesus was the ultimate liberal. The modern right wing in the USA are old Testament followers not Christians.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  12. Lee

    What an idiotic machination and recreation of a trial that never existed for a person who never existed.

    May 3, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • Martin Mack

      Lee,

      Believer or not you're simply ignoring a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Even the most scholarly and ardent atheists don't agree with you. Do a little homework before spouting off.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  13. Mio Akiyama

    what sin did he commit? he's the one who cleansed the sin of this world! ..well if he were to be found guilty if ever, a community service would do.

    May 3, 2011 at 2:55 am |
  14. jake

    This whole Adam and Eve thing? Are Christians willing to readily admit that if people have been living in sin or evil since the first two people plunged every human generation into perpetual sin, then God's entire creation experiment was pointless because it was doomed from the start? God created the world just so the naked monkeys–in all their prideful, overzealous glory–could ruin it for some green paper and shiny objects? So Christians are secretly nihilists, or they want to get back to a god who abandoned the great majority of his "children" to an eternity in hell?

    May 3, 2011 at 1:32 am |
    • Lee

      This god is apparently not very good. His creation seemed to go wrong with the very first two people. He took no responsibility for it of course. It was not only all their fault but apparently all us unborn clucks were to blame as well (if you believe in the idiocy of "original sin"). Not only that, but by the time we get to Noah, apparently his magnificent creation was such a calamitous mess, there was no choice but to drown all us "beloved" children and kill all the animals and plants of the earth and start all over again. And once again, this god took no responsibiity for his creation. It was on us dumb clucks again for "turning out so sinful". Shame on us eh?

      May 3, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  15. jake

    Would Jesus still have been the son of God to Christians if the Pharisees had condemned him to a "life of toil" or something? I mean, conceivably Jesus would have been locked up or enslaved in one of Herod's palaces in Galilee. Maybe he doesn't like the whole "son of God" thing after awhile, and in a way he begins to resent it. He alienates God, keeps a private journal detailing his most intimate thoughts, and one day writes, "I have come to face the facts of life, that I am neither man nor god, but animal." He works out constantly, turning his mind and body into precision instruments, those philosophical and physical tools that make a man an animal. He has conjugal visits with Mary Magdalen, gets a "Madonna" heart tattoo, and starts utilizing his considerable carpentry skills to fashion monolithic thrones on which he sits every evening, then is forced to hand them over for sale. When he sits he views his kingdom–a six by eight meter cell with a straw mattress and a book, in which the truth is kept, because it is the only truth he will ever know.

    May 3, 2011 at 1:13 am |
  16. Bill Mosby

    How about a life sentence doing community service? Oh, wait...

    May 2, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  17. Joe Fattal

    Believe me if Jesus come right now he would get the same treatment he had 3000 years ago. His coming is a threat to the thousands of different Churches world wide, obviously they'll be out of business with his coming. Some of the Churches now a day are big money business, and what Jesus would do by coming is change people minds, try to unify all churches under his name which he will not succeed. If I was him I'll stay where I am at and wait until we all go to him, there he'll win.

    May 1, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
  18. Karin

    I believe in god because if I don't I will go to hell.
    I believe in god because my community and/or family, friends and neighbors do.
    I believe in god because I like to go to church.
    I believe in god because I like to be on the opposite end of modern knowledge.

    April 30, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
  19. Jeff

    I'm going to dare to make an on-topic comment here...

    It would have been more interesting to see an actual trial where they first determined Jesus' guilt. To go into this sentencing phase with his guilt assumed skips over the religious arguments for and against whether he actually committed blasphemy. I'm assuming the against argument would have been based on the fact that you can't commit blasphemy by claiming that you are God if you are in fact God. And I assume they would have called many of the witnesses listed in this article as character witnesses to prove that he was in fact God. The actual trial would have been far more of an interesting test of the legal system than the simple testimonies given during sentencing.

    April 30, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
    • Anton

      I agree. It is pointless to consider a sentence when the trial could not take place under replica conditions. Nowhere in the gospels or Acts does it say Jesus was God. He calls himself 'son of Man' and that has a religious interpretation as the Messiah – but the Messiah is not God.

      It is important that the Bible fudges the question of 'blasphemy' by in effect leaving the word in the original Greek so that its definition circular. We know that it means defiance of Jewish religious law because we are told so. In fact the charge and the execution had nothing to do with religion. Pilate would not have had the slightest in, or even understood a religious crime. The charge hinges on claiming to be King of Israel. 'Israel' at the time had three kings subject to confirmation by Tiberius. In claiming to usurp their authority, Jesus claimed to usurp the authority of Tiberius, so was guilty of Treason, something Tiberius was particularly paranoid about (with reason). The Greek blasphehmein literally means 'to bad-speak'. Jesus spoke sedition against the legal authority and was sentenced as a terrorist – a point emphasized by saying that two 'robbers' (that is terrorists) were crucified with them. Today, he would most likely end up in Guantanamo indefinitely.

      April 30, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
    • Memyself

      The reason the initial part of the trial is skipped is that there is no law against blasphemy. Since there is no law on the books stating what blasphemy is, there could be no trial.

      But, I think you missed the point of the trial. The trial was to show people how the writing of laws may or may not lead them in one direction or another. It was also to point out that maybe, when you have more intimate knowledge of the case or the defendent, while your decision legally may be right, morally it may be wrong.

      It seems to me this lawyer was trying to expose the complexity in being a Christian and a U.S. citizen. And maybe he was showing that we all need to think first and not just do what our political or religious leaders tell us is right! Maybe that's why the Jehovah Witnesses don't take part in Jury duty or political processes. At some point, you might have to make a decision that goes against Christ, but with your wallet or other portions of society.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • Memyself

      And one more thing... to me? The death penalty is making a decision that only God should make.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  20. Eric

    Jesus IS the son God, he DID exist and for all of you who do not believe your time is running out, this world is more than what you see. It's evil built on a lie. Once Eve turned her back on god and ate from the tree of knowledge she convinced adam to do the same. By them turning their backs on God and from them we are all born into the lie which the serpent had told eve. Jesus was sent to save us take away our sin if only the jews had believed he was the son of man like he said he was. He performed miracles right in front of their eyes and they didn't believe him. So they crucified him because they didn't want to lose their "power". Mankind has been dark and evil since adam and eve. This is Satan's kingdom and he will do whatever it takes to keep you from God and to keep your soul. I am a believer of no religion, I've been to church maybe 5 times and i was young. Hopefully for all who dont understand and believe in the truth will open your eyes soon. Bad things are going to happen and the only one who can save you is God, Believing in the son of man, Believe in the truth of what he speaks. This is the only way to live an eternal happy life in the Kingdom of heaven as life on earth does end.

    April 30, 2011 at 1:42 am |
    • VaderZan

      Selah! I believe that you have been touched by a great whisper of wisdom. Embrace God's will, and enjoy the ride. Sic Semper Fidelis et Paratus.

      April 30, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
    • vikki jo kennedy

      without a doubt the confinement would be served out at/ in GIT-MOE. ONE THOUGHT TO PONDER IS HOW WOULD HE EVER HAVE GOTTEN PAST HOMELAND SECURITY TO ENTER OUR " ONE NATION UNDER GOD " (?).... IN THE FIRST PLACE?? THINK ABOUT IT!!! THAT IS VERY, VERY SHAMEFUL TO OUR NATION.

      May 2, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Andy Breeden

      Shut up, Eric.

      May 2, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
    • rick

      So, in the eyes of the world, He would probably still be found guilty. And If not, we'd still be in our sin, right?

      May 2, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
    • jake

      So.....You spout a bunch of Christian dogma, then say, "I'm a believer of no religion"? I think you're confused, my monotheistic friend.

      May 3, 2011 at 1:00 am |
    • nish

      did science teacher in middle school ever tell you about a process called decomposition? how a body is eaten up by worms when buried? probably not. lets face it – theres no afterlife. when you start believing in BS like that, you are vulnerable to any irrational argument. there isnt a god, there isnt a heaven (literal heaven, i mean – thought i must mention that). the world is beautiful as it is – we dont need little fairies.

      May 3, 2011 at 1:28 am |
    • Jarrod

      I was raised a Christian and remain a Christian and let me just say you guys all need to chill out and stop trying to use scare tactics to gain support of your beliefs. You shouldnt want people to join because they are afraid of damnation. They should become religious because they want to. I think everyone is looking for spirituality, and the bible says everyone will be given the chance to see the right path. Just let them find it the right way. Lay off man haha

      May 3, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Humhum Hayaha

      One doesn't get much nutrition by eating regurgitated material

      May 3, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Maximusvad

      Constantine declared Jesus as divine and the zealots created an anthological masterpiece called the New Testament from pagan lore. Open your eyes.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • razzi

      ERic... I believe everything you say to be true, but religion/church is God's bride so why reject her if you love Him? Find a good church and worship the Lord. The fellowship will bring great joy in your walk with Christ!

      May 4, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • Mike

      Wow, talk about brain washed. Any idea how you sound exactly like the rantings of a muslim fundamentalist?

      May 4, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • John

      Amen

      May 5, 2011 at 7:25 am |
    • John

      As we can see by the comments here, most people would do exactly what they did back in the day of Jesus, so this pretty much answers the question of this article.

      May 5, 2011 at 7:34 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.