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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. Jack

    This is not a good comparison at all. The leaders of Israel in Jesus day broke dozens of laws to rail road Jesus to his death; he who was completely innocent, even of Jewish law. It was the greatest miscarriage of justice in he history of the world, even to this day.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Jack

      This Jack is not the first Jack posting. Jesus lived and died a Jew and never wanted to create a new religion. No Jewish court convicted Jesus of anything. The Romans who adopted Christianity much later are the authors of the New Testament. Therefore any thinking Christian would be suspect of any charge the Romans who destroyed Israel and crucified Christ made against the ancient Hebrews. The Romans were the first anti-semites.

      April 24, 2011 at 5:29 am |
  2. robert

    Ummmmmmm, well who's gonna die to purge the sins of the world. I'm just sayi
    'n...

    April 22, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  3. Blad

    stupid article, stupid trial

    April 22, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  4. Reggie

    What if Muslim Muhamand was on trail? He would be found guilty and sentence to death. Christians would hang him and stone him.. RELIGON IS DANGEROUS!! It doesnt SAVE people, it SLAVES people. Its not FAITH base its FAKE base.. Free your mind

    April 22, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • Saulgood

      You're the slave. This world has your mind twisted. You are not free. One day you will realize, my friend.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • Reggie

      Saulgod@ your religon is right and everybody religon is wrong!! You need to be free!! So when Islam comes to america! You are ready to die for your religion!! STUPID

      April 22, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  5. Bob

    I'm sure glad that Yeshua (Hebrew for Jesus) did not have a trial in this day and age. If so, then we would all be doomed. It is because Yeshua died, that we have eternal life!

    April 22, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  6. Mmmmm

    CNN if your hatredness couldn't be displayed any better with intentionally bypassing every opportunity to provide an article of merit regarding Passion Week and Easter you rather chose choker kinder eggs and courtroom gest to mock the week that changed the world...mind you neither article has nothing to do with Christainity nor what the True Man and True God accopmplished through His Death on The Cross...so sad too bad your incapability makes you unworthy
    of reporting...

    April 22, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Chris

      It's English Jim, but not as we know it.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • No One Is Safe

      @chris – lmao!!

      April 23, 2011 at 12:22 am |
  7. Mike

    The most important thing about being a Christian is that Jesus paid for his owm by becoming a sacrafice for us. We would die in our sin otherwise.

    All praise and glory to God as we remember his sacrafice for us this day!

    April 22, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  8. Jack

    Over 100,000 Hebrew Zealots were crucified during the Roman occupation of historical Israel for treason. In 72 AD all the Hebrew people were expelled by Rome for their faith in one universal GOD. Rome destroyed the Temple where Jesus had preached. Jesus by saying he was the son of GOD was not being blasphemous. Hebrew teaching made all Hebrews the children of GOD.The Christian Bible was the product of a Romanized mind. The concept of the Son of GOD in the New Testament is founded on a mythological mind set. Hercules was the Son of God according to ROMAN myth. This concept of Son of GOD would have held no unique significance to a first Century Hebrew. Rome executed Jesus because he likely committed an act of Treason against Rome by converting several Roman Centurions to a creed of pacifism. He was so eloquent that Rome began to understand that the Word was more potent than the sword. Such a Man posed a threat to the militancy of the Roman Empire. When Rome became a Christian nation and created the New Testament to ensure that Roman would convert to this new faith they fashioned a story that put the blame on the Hebrews rather than on the first century ancestors of the converts.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • richunix

      Just love those bloster numbers....5 people = 5000..... Parted the Red Sea (but actually it was the Sea of Reeds) ANY Anthropologist will tell you the numbers WERE highly inflated to make a point in the story. The average life span circa 100 CE was 35-45 years. It is highly unlikely that 100,000 JEWS were killed between 40 – 100 CE. But then you willing believe any thoery that distorts the fact for truth.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  9. IamGOD

    Time to grow up and start doing something that matters, put the fairy tales on the shelf and do some work...

    April 22, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • Saulgood

      We'll see...

      April 22, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • Barbara Barrs

      I hope you will trade in your blind ignorance for the "Way, the Truth, and the Light.

      Also, you are the only the person who would ever believe you are "God." Attention-getting and full of anger–no doubt.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  10. Adelina

    CNN, can't you interview some Evangelical leaders, sometimes? Why are you so left?

    April 22, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Adelina, the purpose of this blog is the weed out the strong in Faith. CNN created this place to get Christians to doubt their faith. Muslims and Jews they leave alone mostly but because Christianity is the largest group of Faith then we are CNNs target.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • Andy Anderson

      It doesn't matter who they interview. It's all stupid. The Bronze Age is over, and it's time to grow up and face reality.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Erik

      Do you really need a persecution complex to feel right with the world? Wouldn't you agree that someone who went around saying "They're after me! They're after me!" is probably a bit off kilter? What would happen to Christianity if it did finally "win" out over everything else and everyone became a Christian? Who would Christian's then pity or hate? Would it all then come crashing down around them? Would there be any point to being one of the elect if "everyone" were elect? Isn't this whole persecution complex thing a bit too self-serving?

      April 22, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  11. Eric

    Everyone has to settle the issue of whether Jesus will be their Lord for themselves. No amount of human reasoning or rhetoric will persuade someone, only God can change a person's heart. All this talk about whether Christians are responsible for all the ills of this world is misleading and unproductive. As someone once said "There is a little good in the worst of us and a little bad in the best of us." But one of the major issues of the article that few are discussing is the death penalty.

    Here is what I don't get. You have this statement about Jeanne Bishop: "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.’”

    What will it take to get people to realize that there are some people so evil, so intent on your destruction, that they will never rest until either you or they are dead? Either that or they care so little about human life that if you happen to get in their way, too bad for you. God said in Ezekiel 33:11 that He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but He still had the death penalty for certain crimes. How can you say "no more killing" when the criminal will just kill in prison or out in society again if released? How is it being humane to release someone who can kill in cold blood with no conscience whatsoever so that they can prey on another innocent person. Do you think that you are doing that next victim a favor with your deluded humanity? Do you think that they will be rehabilitated in prison? I spent time in jail as a youth falsely accused of a crime I did not commit and the only thing most people learned in jail/prison was to be more hardened towards others (for their very survival) and to learn new criminal tricks and techniques from people more criminally experienced then they were. This politically correct society of tolerating anything and everything (except Christianity in a lot of cases) is going to bring about destruction of society as we know it. There are terrorists in the world that will not rest until they destroy or subjugate everyone else, or are destroyed themselves. I personally think that all of this is a spiritual battle that will never be solved politically or militarily but that opens a can of worms for another day. All I'm trying to say here is yes, let's be humane, let's always try to rehabilitate first, let us try to understand what is motivating someone to do the things that they do, but let us also realize that there are consequences to crimes and that some people can't be rehabilitated and have to be destroyed lest they destroy you. King David in the Bible is a good example of someone who committed some major sins, God forgave him and he was rehabilitated if you will, but he still suffered some pretty grievously consequences for his sins. God Bless all you out there as you work through these issues for yourselves.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • richunix

      Seen Elvis in a potato chip lately?.......Hey I watched South Park last night and the had the Virgin Mary bleeding out her a$$...wasn't that a wonderful miracle? Mummmmmmmm show me another......

      “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

      April 22, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • marcia

      Eric, there was a time when Christianity tolerated absolutely nothing. They can't get away with that anymore since there is a separation of church and state. All religions are little clubs dreamed up by some guy that thought he was above it all. No one has the answers. Not I and certainly not you.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • Adelina

      Christianity saved the world from barbarism.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • Nonimus

      @Eric,
      Interesting, I was against you, then with you, then against you.
      For the irreformable criminal there is the life sentence, i.e. remove them from society. I think the main justification for a death sentence is cost, but with multiple appeals and special handling, it may be cheaper to just incarcerate them for life. Using the Bible doesn't really work. Besides not being part of the law, you can usually find support in it for any position.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • Nonimus

      @Adelina<
      "Christianity saved the world from barbarism."
      ...by being more brutal and intolerant. Not sure which would have been worse.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • Landruu

      Eric. The bible was written by men not by God.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • Skeptical Analysis

      Everyone has to settle the issue of whether the Leprechaun will be their Lord for themselves. No amount of human reasoning or rhetoric will persuade someone, only the Leprechaun can change a person's heart...the Leprechaun said in Ezekiel 33:11 that He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but he still had the death penalty for certain crimes... King David in the Bible is a good example of someone who committed some major sins, the Leprechaun forgave him and he was rehabilitated if you will, but he still suffered some pretty grievously consequences for his sins. May the Leprechaun Bless all you out there as you work through these issues for yourselves.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  12. Joel

    I'm sorry but this is truly retarded there is no what if jesus were here? if he was the world would not be what is is today.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • Facelessdrone2005

      No difference. If Jesus was here today, the uber-conservatives would just crucify him for being a liberal socialist. "Love thy neighbor"? "Turn the other cheek"? All that stuff about rich men and heaven and eyes of needles? What a bunch of stinkin' liberal nonsense. Better to do a preemptive war.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  13. Abrour

    Is this the best CNN can do on Good Friday?

    April 22, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  14. Ben

    It would be more relevant to put Israeli's on trial for occupying the land of Jesus. We already know that Jesus was prosecuted and crucified for not being a good Jew.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Nonimus

      I thought the Romans killed Jesus. Let's put the Italians on trial, because we all know that the descendants are just as guilty as the ones who actually committed the crime. Wait, no, that's Biblical logic, never mind.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • Adelina

      Nonimus, descendants are usually worse than ancestors. Present America proved it.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Nonimus

      @Adelina
      "descendants are usually worse than ancestors. Present America proved it."
      Way to miss the point, completely. Non Sequitur attack aside, do you feel you should be punished for the sins of your parents?

      April 22, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  15. JWH

    the price is paid in full, now you decide to claim the free gift of salvation. Eph 2:8-9.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  16. Randall

    @john r
    how old are you? 12? 13?

    April 22, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  17. richunix

    Based on the writings "Evidence and Trial" as so stated in the Bible...He was not convicted of any crime , but wait the plot thickens. Those books were written 80-100 years after the fact and in a time when the authors were trying put "JESUS" a good light, while attempting to portray the "JEWS" and "ROMANS" as the evil protagonist. There are always two sides to the story and the truth will only be known when both side present their case. Sadly the "Bible" is a one-sided story. “Religion favors the believer”

    “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

    April 22, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Hugo

      If that Unix refers to master of the Unix O/S, the you really should have stronger math skills than to accept that atheism quote. Simply put, 1 does not and never can equal 0 (unless you are allowed to divide by 0, or multiply by infinity).

      April 22, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  18. JWH

    World, the trial is over, he was innocent, being God in flesh. He died for ALL and was killed for ALL in that our sins were laid on him. If he would come again, the world would execute him again. Why ask such a blasphemous question? I dare you CNN, put Muhammad on trial, show me your freedom of speech you brude of vipers.

    April 22, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • William Demuth

      How about a Jesus versus Mohammed cage match?

      I bet Muhammed hits him with a folding chair!

      April 22, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Nonimus

      @JWH,
      "I dare you CNN, put Muhammad on trial, show me your freedom of speech you brude of vipers."
      First, CNN didn't do this, just reported it. Second, they also reported on that idiot preacher in Florida who *did* put Mohammed on trial, or the Koran anyway.
      You might see someone about that persecution complex, or is it paranoia, I can't recall.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • richunix

      Sure; but he has ascended to heaven on a horse in Jerusalem by way of the Temple Mount (his body is physically buried in Mecca). So how again did JESUS ascend again?

      “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

      April 22, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • richunix

      2-1 on Mohamand....

      April 22, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • Chanjobe1

      Brood*

      April 22, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • Hugo

      Why do you dare CNN? CNN is just the messenger.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  19. Tallulah13

    How silly.

    April 22, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  20. Kevin

    gogogopher

    what are you talking about?

    April 22, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • gogogopher

      Jesus the kid killer? In the Bible.... Or the story of Jephthah.... he killed, then burnt his virgin daughter so her aroma would be pleasing to God/Jesus...

      Want more loving Jesus?

      April 22, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • Adelina

      @Go-, that guy did it on his own accord when God didn't say anything. That incident shows the chaos of Bible-illiterate society and era and what spiritually misguided persons can do. There are a lot of Americans who sacrifice unborn children nowadays and for no reason at that!

      April 22, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Adelina

      Atheists will forever be locked in pathetic Bible-illiteracy unless they give up relying on anti-God literature and start reading the Bible itself with authenticity.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • Ya think

      Adelina they probably know the bible better than you, many have stated they have read it at least 2 times if not more. DUH!

      April 22, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Adelina

      @Ya, the Bible requires lifetime learning. I read dozens of times but still amazed. What are Jewish scholors doing without educating Americans on OT? Ignorant America won't be a help to Israel at all.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • Hugo

      @gogogopher, to blame Jesus for actions in the OT, you first have to agree that he is God. Otherwise, you can't.

      Further, you would have to demonstrate that Jesus was God during the trial. When does the Holy Spirit come into play?

      April 22, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • gogogopher

      @ hugo, correct. Christians will not admit Christ killed 42 children. And I used to be one.... I am so glad I woke up.

      April 22, 2011 at 9:27 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.