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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. Sitnalta

    Thanks to the first amendment, Jesus would've never gone to trial in the first place. So this whole story is really stupid.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Michael

      Would the first amendment defend him against the destruction of public property charge?

      April 22, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • richunix

      Answer: A good Jewish lawyer would!

      "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 11:45 am |
  2. Jeus Is Lord

    Not really sure what the point is. It was always God's plan that His only begotten Son should suffer, die and be resurrected so that our sins could be forgiven and we could be brought near to God through Jesus Christ. If Jesus had not died and been resurrected, we (Christ's disciples) would still be enemies of God. Thank you Jesus.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Chris

      Does that even make sense to you? He sacrifices himself to himself so he himsalf can fogive us from the grydge he himself is holding....Silly

      April 22, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • Skeptical Analysis

      Not really sure what the point is. It was always the Leprechaun's plan that His only begotten Son should suffer, die and be resurrected so that our sins could be forgiven and we could be brought near to the Leprechaun through the Leprechaun Christ. If the Leprechaun Christ had not died and been resurrected, we (the Leprechaun Christ's disciples) would still be enemies of the Leprechaun. Thank you Leprechaun Christ.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • STU

      Interesting point!!! What if this trial was held in Israel by their religious leaders, instead of Virginia, and imagine Israel not being dependent on US aid and support.
      What would be the result? Wouldn't that be more realistic scenario? I don't think the verdict would have been much different than the original verdict 2000 years ago.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • No One Is Safe

      @Jeus [sic] is lord – y'know, it's *really* tough to take anything at all that you say even remotely seriously, when you can't even spell the name of your zombie lord correctly.

      PAAAAHHHHHRAYZE JEUS!!!

      April 23, 2011 at 12:40 am |
  3. Dan

    We have a moral duty to put to death the worst of the worst. Eye for and eye! People tend to think there aren't evil people out there, there is, we just don't see them that often and they aren't common.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  4. STU

    Honestly I beleive if he returns today, no one will pay attention to him, as we are so much englufed in our lives, we don't think about our creator, who created us? why we were created? what will happen to us after this life?
    We need to see a biger picture, and try to understand the relationship between the creator of this world and his creations.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • richunix

      Save you the trouble of putting out a night-light......he ain't comming....so try to get some sleep

      April 22, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • STU

      He is coming or not leads to a bigger question itself. If you believe in God only then you can believe in his return. If you don't believe in God, then of-course there is no resurrection and no day of judgment.

      If you don't believe in creator or God, and believe that this universe and humanity was created just by accident/ coincident, then may be you need to ponder upon the complexities involved in the creation of the world and human being itself. .

      April 22, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • thereishope

      I was once in your shoes.....Asking so many questions, actually the same ones you mentioned. Believe it or not, the answers are in the bible. Just needs some time to read and study....If you get a knock on the door, usually on a Saturday morning from a Jehovah Witness, ask them! They know and will help you look for the answers in your own bible. We were placed here on earth for a purpose, they will gladly explain the rest......;o)

      April 22, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  5. Gabe

    He'd be given an unfair trial, just like any other black man in America.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • Chris

      Yes, poor OJ got a really bad rap, didn't he.....

      April 22, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • Michael

      @Chris... Considering he is now in jail for stealing his own property, you just might have some people who agree with that.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  6. Chris

    His followers would have him put to death, much to my entertainment.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  7. Racial Undertone

    People in the US cannot even discuss Jesus without mixing a little racial undertone into the picture. No wonder their is such a divide. For once U.S., layoff the white / black stuff!!!

    April 22, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  8. Terry

    Jesus was a Capricorn He ate organic food He believed in love and peace And never wore no shoes Long hair, beard and sandles And a funky bunch of friends Reckon we'd just nail him up If he came down again- K Kristifferson

    April 22, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  9. Jeff Spangler

    Jesus would hire good Jewish lawyers and beat the Roman's rap against him.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • Michael

      It was the Jews (though not all Jews) that had the rap against him. The Romans were just indifferent.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  10. Michael Kelly

    He'd wind up with a court appointed lawyer who would use an insanity defense. Jesus would lose on jury but win on appeal because the court appointed lawyer used that defense against Jesus' wishes. They'd then release Jesus and get him several years later on child molestation charges when he heals the child of an atheist.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  11. richunix

    Remember Crucifixion was done to the worst of criminals who committed the most horrendous crimes against ROMANS as this was a ROMAN form punishment not Jewish. This would lend one to believe JESUS may have commitment a series of crimes that finally were caught by the ROMANS. Funny thing the ROMANS make no note in history about this person, but yet the ROMANS will describe in great detail about trials of people that threaten the Empire….hummmmmmm the plot thickens Maybe JESUS was a murder or thief and got caught….wouldn’t that be interesting?

    “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 11:34 am |
  12. STU

    Jesus (Peace Be Upon Him) did not die that day. God took him to heavens. He will be back to help the humanity in his final days.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • Artist

      And Santa comes once a year LOL Let the mythical delusion begin ....oooggaaaaa booogaaaaaa

      April 22, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • Joseph Crusader

      Stop the taqqiya you m000slim. You follow M00haMad who R APED 6 year ols Aiysha when he was 55 years old. He STOLE stories from J ews and Chr1 st1ans and compiled the bu ll sh1t you call k00ran.

      Jes us' death is a historical Fact not just biblical.

      Are you not ashamed to follow M00haMad who RA PED Sofia the same day he had k1lled her father, brother and Sister?

      April 22, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Jeus Is Lord

      Yes, Jesus did die that day. There were many witnesses to this fact. Why do refuse to believe the many eye witness accounts (as recorded in the Bible) and choose instead to believe what Mohammed wrote? Mohammed came 500 years after Jesus. The prophet Isaiah prophesied (Is 53:8) that Jesus would die more than 700 years before Jesus came. Jesus said that He is the only way to the Father in Heaven. Unless you believe in Him and place your faith in Him alone for salvation, you cannot be saved. Your "good works" are as filthy rags to God. Only through faith in Jesus Christ are we made right with our Father in Heaven. Please read the BIble and compare it to what you are reading now. Peace.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Manma DeReli Gon

      @Joseph Crusader – Jesus' death may be biblical but its NOT Fact. You need to get your facts straight before you go pounding on others. Its not fact because no one really knows who this person Jesus is. He certainly wasnt the son of God nor did he die for my sins. I was born 2000 years later.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  13. Bob

    Jesus wouldn't get a trial today. He would be rotting in Gitmo.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  14. Gerald c

    We need to keep in mind that the next time Jesus returns it will not be to be put on trial.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Chris

      This whole "the end is neigh" nonsense is one of the sillier Christian supersti-tions. People have been saying it for centuries, including JC himself, and he obviously got it wrong.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  15. Pontious Pilot

    Seems to mee that humanity hasn't changed much in 2011 years. He was prosecuted by those in power when he brought the word. The message sent to the people..."comply or be killed". In a church of his followers, he was tried and convicted, though not killed...seems to me the message was well received.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  16. tom

    How would he fare today? He'd be crucified by Christians

    April 22, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • Charles

      Liberals and the left would destroy Jesus.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • No One Is Safe

      @charles – if you can't see that your man-on-a-stick was *the* liberal of all liberals, with all the things he allegedly preached, then you clearly have zero comprehension of *anything* written in that fairy-tale book you think is so important. but don't feel bad... you're just yet another moronic jagoff who completely misses the point...

      April 23, 2011 at 12:34 am |
  17. Obvious BS

    Obviously people with a conscience tainted with 2000 years of guilt. Jesus had to die, so God would not have allowed this outcome.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • SDR

      You appear to be the only one to hit the nail on the head. "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." No blood shed – no atonement for sin. Everybody lost.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  18. Mark from Middle River

    Funny, CNN, I await Ramadan so we can see the article on the trial of Mohammad.

    If you don't then there is a severe bias and chicken-sh' in the Belief Blog staff.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • Ben

      well that's because Muslims killed thousands of our citizens on 9/11 and they're the reason why thousands of our soldiers have died in the middle east. I can keep talking about why the US rightfully discriminates against Islam and why we shouldn't really care, but I would just be wasting my time

      April 22, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Watch yer back

      @Ben

      Don't forget you'd also being killing the brain cells of thousands who would also read your garbage logic.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • jrt1098

      His point is that there is NO TOLERANCE in the Muslim religion, 10 years after 9/11 where are the "moderate" Muslims decrying the takeover of their magnificent religion by the radicals.......their silence is DEAFENING !

      April 22, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • Guest

      Muslims respect Jesus (peace be upon him) as well. In fact one would not be a Muslim if one did not believe that Jesus (peace be upon him) was a Prophet of Allah. Therefore, your bashing of our Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) is asinine at best.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • Geezer

      That's because we need to ignore the intolerance and attrocities comitted by christianity. We only need to focus what other religions have done and pretend that christianity is not responsible for murders and crimes attributable to that draconian fairy tale.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • No One Is Safe

      i think you've been soaking your head in that middle river for too long, mark.

      mohammed never faced a trial. your man-on-a-stick did. they were "recreating" something that supposedly happened in that book of fairy tales you don't have the strength to face life without...

      April 23, 2011 at 12:30 am |
  19. glyder

    at some point in time,a final trial will begin.one judge,no jury.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • doc 77

      Agreed. Start focusing on that, not how he would do today if on trial

      April 22, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • Watch yer back

      No, Judge Dredd is not only the judge, but also the jury AND executioner

      April 22, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Jeus Is Lord

      Amen broher!

      April 22, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  20. Jay

    This is kinda a stupid idea. This is not a intellectual reflection or exploration on the story and trial of Jesus. It's an attempt to make a certain point about capital punishment using the mock Jesus trial as a gimmick.

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

      you just don't like it cause it has to do with Jesus, otherwise you wouldn't even comment on this

      April 22, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • doc 77

      come on folks, either you belive or you don't. A contemporary trial is pointless. That's what it will come down to. Believe or not. I choose to believe.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Abble

      no actually he's right its kind of a waste of time and I feel that Jesus would ask those involved to spend time on something more meaningful. Tell me, how does this bring one spiritually closer to God?

      April 22, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • doc 77

      It doesn't bring us closer, Abble. It is nothing more than meaningless speculation. Focus on the crucified/living Lord. That's what it's all about.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • eric

      I agree, it is using Jesus as a prop for a modern day political position. Should we have compassion for all? Yes. Are the ones hardest to love the ones who need it most? Yes. Is this any kind of way to teach that? No.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • Jay

      Well, I do think a 'mock trial' would be interesting. Take the laws (both secular and religious) of the time and put Jesus 'on trial' and see if there would be enough evidence to convict him of the crimes accused and then see what the sentence for those crimes would've been. That could be pretty fascinating as an exercise

      However, when I was reading the article about it being only the sentencing phase and done in Virginia because of a high number of executions, and that a public defender was brought it and Jesus was represented by a black man (both of those last two having nothing to do with anything about Jesus trial but simply because it tilts the agenda a certain way), I realized this wasn't a historical exploration of an interesting (and to many, meaningful) story in history but just an attempt to make a political point about execution. Granted the issue of state executions is one worthy of discussion and debate, but this seems a rather contrived, and dishonest, way to do it

      April 22, 2011 at 11:50 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.