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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. just be happy

    it's 4:19, got a minute?

    May 8, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  2. yokolee

    Please do not allow Jews on the jury, let Jesus live

    May 8, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  3. Jon

    Interesting article. Perhaps I'm a bit cynical, but I believe – as the Bible says – men love darkness, because their deeds are evil. I think the reason these people were COMFORTABLE with a life sentence (as opposed to sentencing Christ to death) is that they can continue in their delusion that we are not in actuality as morally bankrupt and depraved and wicked as the Bible says we are. I think the reality is – were Christ walking the Earth today as He did many years ago – things would go pretty much the same way as they did back then. Maybe not precisely, with the cross and everything. But I can definitely see a mob assembling and beating the life out of Him. The fact is... more Christians have been martyred in the last 200 years than in the times of the Early Church. I think the Bible's indictment of man still stands – that we are swift to shed blood. We are not nearly as GOOD as we may think we are. Our hearts are desperately wicked.

    That's why I have a problem with ministries like the smiling preacher on TV who says 'you can have your best life now.' In refusing to even say the word SIN, his teachings serve to perpetuate the delusion that we are actually BETTER than we are in reality. If we hold the Bible in our hands, and proclaim to believe what it says, then we must first READ it and understand that much of what it has to say is an indictment on man's unrighteousness. Basically, that God so loves us that He demonstrated His love for us by providing that which WE NEEDED MOST – not life enhancement, not a bigger bank account, not greater self esteem, not love for one's neighbor, not greater compassion – what we need most is a SAVIOR, someone to take upon himself the judgment that would otherwise condemn us all. The question is – when you see yourself, do you see yourself in the light of God's righteousness? Or do you simply measure yourself against your neighbor or your co-worker... "compared to him/her, I am a good person." Maybe. But in light of God's standards of righteousness – in light of what the scriptures say – we are indicted. Our hearts are wicked. Our hearts are far from God. We are 'at enmity' with God. There is none who seek after righteousness.

    We may not like to think so, but I believe Christ is pretty much crucified and re-crucified time and again, day in and day out, because men LOVE darkness.

    May 8, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  4. 2011judgment

    If the jurors are Liberal Democrats they will convict and sentence Christ and probaly to death. If the jurors are righteous and fear God, they will find Jesus innocent of all charges.

    May 8, 2011 at 8:05 am |
    • dcspeed164

      @2011judgment
      the pharisees thought themselves righteous that's why he was tried for blasphemy. Remember Christ was rebeling against the "fundamentalist" orthodoxy of his time. So in my view if he were to present himself to the "righteous" of today he would again be labled dangerous and heretical.

      May 9, 2011 at 6:12 am |
  5. joe

    When talking about the stoning story, Olser said:
    “I think that story is very direct that we don’t have the moral authority to execute prisoners"
    Just want to point out that you could apply the same story and logic to even punishing people, yet for some reason she probably accepts that as necessary.

    May 7, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
  6. Ed Galbraith

    "God" belongs to the childhood of our species. We are just emerging. In future, children will learn that people once believed in, fought for, tortured and murdered for mythical characters created by illiterate desert nomads. Shame on you for buying into such nonsense.

    May 7, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  7. malone

    Interesting that the most important part of the Christian faith is that Jesus DIED for the sins of all and then rose from the dead. This jury, while trying to do what they felt was the right thing, would undo that most important act of Jesus. If Jesus hadn't been sentenced to death and executed then Christians would have to pay for their own sins. Christianity would be only a slightly different branch of Judaism that might not have survived.

    May 7, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • dcspeed164

      Good catch. I thought I was the only one who got that. The death of Christ was the price for the salvation of humanity, he was fullfilling prophecy.

      May 9, 2011 at 6:06 am |
  8. Archangel Beth

    I'm sorry but why are you people mad at Jesus? He is God's son! Trinity Lutheran Church is not complying with what God wants them to do. That is why they are mad at Jesus. Jesus died for everyone's sins! I can't believe that you're going to treat him like this. God is VERY UNHAPPY ABOUT ALL OF YOU SLANDERING HIS SONS NAME! GO TO YOUR BIBLES AND READ!

    May 7, 2011 at 7:29 am |
  9. Martin

    What exactly is this supposed to prove, or make a point about? "Blasphemy" is not illegal in Virginia, and the only offenses for which a person can be executed are various types of particularly heinous murder. The article and "trial" are misleading and really fail to make any point at all.

    May 6, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
  10. LA Bear Ex-Southerner

    I believe the point is moot. In the US the only capital crime is capitol murder. Christians may have murdered Muslims, Jews and Gays. Jesus didn't murder anyone that I remember. Maybe if you put the church on trial.

    May 6, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
    • Stormwatch5/21

      http://www.familyradio.com/graphical/literature/judgment/judgment.html

      May 7, 2011 at 11:19 pm |
  11. Joe

    I never get tired of watching you people babble over a made up god.

    May 6, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
  12. Joe

    You can still investigate the fun of being a pagan. Pagans do what they want, have ethics and don't have to go to church. They send out NO missionaries and don't even care if you convert.

    May 6, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • Artist

      Pagans can party, still a little wierd on their "views" but they can party. At least the ones I know do.

      May 6, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  13. Joe

    This article is is irrelevant since Jesus never existed and neight did god. The fine make believe book was written by humans in the CATHOLIC CHURCH, for the future purpose of controlling the masses and they have quite well made that goat in spades.

    May 6, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
  14. JOE

    Ya know what? Time tells all things, and in the end I sure would not want to be the one that was wrong. Fact is your soul will either be with him or without.

    May 6, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  15. chris august

    Extremism is the true work of the Devil. Whether its left or right, it still breeds hatred for anything not inline with it's core values.

    May 6, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • Pete Beck

      Well Spoken!

      May 8, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
  16. Don Pound

    jsaiditfirst has has dates mostly wrong on when the gospels were written. By the way, Mark was the first gospel written about 70 CE. All the rest came after that. None of the gospel writers names are known, and none ever knew or heard jesus speak. Some people ought to get their facts straight.

    May 5, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
  17. oneSTARman

    ZEALOTS like Judas the Galilean, carried out acts of VIOLENCE against Romans and Greeks – Some called them robbers – like the 'thieves' crucified with Jesus. Today we would call them TERRORISTS – They would be Kidnapped and dumped into the Ocean – NO TRIAL

    May 5, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  18. Steve

    Palm Sunday, Lent, ash wednsday, maundy thursday, good friday Where's that in the Bible. Seems like every Pagan festival celebration. Every day celebrated exept the Lords real Holy Sabbath Day. Satan has really got this world hoodwinked. You will ALL see. We are going to account to the Bible and none else. The pope is the anti Christ

    May 5, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • Nat

      Oh yeah, and where is that written in the bible?

      May 5, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • You're very short-sighted to ask where is it written in the Bible. Even if it's a pagan festival turned Christian festival it doesn't matter. Ignorance has really held many at ransom of free-thinking.

      You're very short-sighted to ask where is it written in the Bible. Even if it's a pagan festival turned to Christian festival it doesn't matter. Ignorance has really held many at ransom of free-thinking. What you see in the compiled Bible are the accepted writings out of many. So there are loads that could have been included in the Bible that aren't in it. Having said that, I'm not trying to suppose that in those uncanonized writings have these not-in-the-Bible events on them. We know that God is the owner of the vast Universe and all therein. Therefore not bicker about it. It reduces your thought space to that of a slightly evolved ape.

      May 6, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  19. Jordan N.

    Hmm. Curious reading this after seeing the celebration going on in this country reveling in the death of bin Ladin.

    May 5, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  20. PD Engineer

    A christian, a muslim, and an atheist are walking down the street. All of a sudden God appears before them. He turns to the christian and askes: "What do you wish for more than anything?" The christian responds: "Please take my people to heaven so that we can be close to you for eternity." God nods and *poof* the man is gone. God turns to the muslim and askes "What do you wish for more than anything?" The muslim responds: "Please take my people to heaven so that we can be close to you for eternity." God nods and *poof* the man is gone. God turns to the atheist and askes "What do you wish for more than anything?" The atheist pauses for a long time, pondering his wish. He then turns to God and responds: "How about a coke?" God then askes: "Really? Anything and you want to drink a Coke?" The atheist responds: "Well, the Coke is actually for you, because you have given me everything that I could ever want."

    May 5, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • todd disraeli

      a joke is the best you can come up with? it is a mystery beyond human concept. most don't get it. those who do, fail at living it. failure across the board for Christianity. i am a complete blessed failure. i thank Jesus every night. imagine sucking ass and thanking every person you never met. BTW – I bought a million dollar home from and engineer. Guy had no clue to what life is beyond #'s and books.

      May 7, 2011 at 1:53 am |
    • Archangel Beth

      God didn't give the atheist what he wanted.... SATAN DID!

      May 7, 2011 at 7:31 am |
    • JJ

      Imagine there's no Heaven
      It's easy if you try
      No hell below us
      Above us only sky
      Imagine all the people
      Living for today

      Imagine there's no countries
      It isn't hard to do
      Nothing to kill or die for
      And no religion too
      Imagine all the people
      Living life in peace

      You may say that I'm a dreamer
      But I'm not the only one
      I hope someday you'll join us
      And the world will be as one

      Imagine no possessions
      I wonder if you can
      No need for greed or hunger
      A brotherhood of man
      Imagine all the people
      Sharing all the world

      You may say that I'm a dreamer
      But I'm not the only one
      I hope someday you'll join us
      And the world will live as one

      May 8, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • dcspeed164

      Thanks, I get it.

      May 9, 2011 at 6:01 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.