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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. kells

    Jesus is the way the truth and the LIFE, whosoever believe in him SHALL NEVER DIE.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • YBP

      That's from the Gospel of John, written almost 100 years after Jesus was believed to have lived. It's pagan theology. Not anything that Jesus would have said. That is, if he existed, which is uncertain since all the literature about him is either tendentious, highly allegorical or hearsay. Look into it.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Barbara Barrs

      YBP does not have his facts straight. St. John, the evangelist wrote his Gospel as a man who was an Apostle hand-picked by Jesus, and was a first-hand witness to His teachings and was the only Apostle to witness the Crucifixion and the Risen Christ. However, non-believers do not know that the Gospels and entire Bible was written by God and not man. God bless you and YBP.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
  2. YBP

    It is highly unlikely that ,if Jeus existed, he would have been tried at all. According to Josephus, Pontius Pilate was a noteably cruel Prefect, and notorious for having insurgents put to death without trial. After a ten year reign in Judea, Pilate was recalled to Rome in 36 CE. Jesus, who's historical existence is uncertain, was, according to the Gospels crucified for the following reasons: (1) disuading the people from paying taxes. He said, "Pay Caesar what is due Caesar," and by that he meant, "Not a red cent." The Jews of that time and place believed that everything of value in the Promised Land belonged solely to their God. (2) Gathering a crowd and occupying the Temple compound, during which he overturned the tables of the money-changers (who were relatives of the High Priest) and "would not let any one enter." (3) Declaring himself King, with the help of the adoring crowds shouting "Hosanna, Son of David." This in particular was treason, and punishable by death. It's important to note that the town of Nazareth did not exist at the time of Jesus. Written records of Nazareth only date back to the Third Century CE. Jesus, according to the Gospels, was called Jeasus "the Nazorean," which means "keeper of the Covenant." In other words, Jesus was a religious fanatic who belonged to a fringe Zealot sect, something like David Koresh. In his day, they called them Zealots. Josephus called them Bandits, because they terrorized complicit Jews with roadside raids, as well as killing Romans. Crucifixion was the penalty reserved particularly for crimes against the Roman Empire. We would call them Terrorists. Jesus got his Kingdom of God and Son of Man teachings from the Book of Daniel. David Koresh used a similar text, the Book of Revelation. Both are apocaplyptic books, and open to all kinds of misinterpretation. Blasphemy, would be of no interst to the Romans. Blasphemy was the utterance of the Hebrew God's forbidden name: Yahweh. The Passion Narrative was written by non-Jews to try to explain why their hero was a crucified criminal, a Jew and somehow divine in the way that the pagan gods were divine. It is full of anti-Jewish stories that are entirely untrue. Millions of people have died hideous deaths over the centuries because of these imaginary tales.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • richunix

      Nice!

      “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 11:58 am |
    • Colin

      A refreshingly lucid and historically accurate post, free from the primary color simplicity of Sunday school nonsense.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • YBP

      Thanks, Rich. But I do not believe in any gods. That's why I refer to "him" as the Hebrew God.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Kevin K in Texas

      that you for that.. very clear concise and historically accurate. Being a believer in an ancient alien society providing humanity with technologies and building know how, i find that there is more evidence for alien/human interaction than for Jesus to have existed... and i like the qte that richunix uses..
      “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.”

      good stuff...

      April 22, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • No One Is Safe

      @ybp – "It is highly unlikely that ,if Jeus existed, ..."

      yeesh... now that idiot "Jeus Is Lord" clown has even got *you* doing it!!

      😉

      April 23, 2011 at 12:58 am |
  3. MKJ

    Agreed, there wouldn't be a trial, the government would take care of him before that, or send him to the same place as the WikiLeaks suspect

    April 22, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  4. Toby

    "And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." ~Thomas Jefferson

    April 22, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  5. Daniel

    First the feds would raid his cave when he was not home and place wiretaps and anything to use against him .
    They would next lable him a psychopath and have him discredited . They would next not only pay judas but would pay anybody
    that would have information that they could use against him . Jesus would be ostracized with endless accusations and rumors.
    Jesus would'nt have a PRAYER.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  6. rick

    This is a ridiculous exercise. Jesus was not indigent. He had a family house that His Mother, brothers and sisters wanted Him to come back to. He had wealthy women followers (wife of Herods Steward and others) and contributed money. He had a treasurer (Judas) with a common purse. They gave to the poor. His followers had houses and were fairly well off. John had servants, business partners and boats and a house. As did Peter James and John. Jesus clothes were so nice, they gambled over them rather than tear them in four. Jesus did not "lose" His trial due to a poor defense. He gave His life up for you and me.Why are these sill people applauding that Jesus did not die for their sins?

    April 22, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • richunix

      because he didn't....

      April 22, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • YBP

      You're reading the Gospels literally. You're also making a lot of assumptions. You are entirely wrong. If you're interested in this subject matter, you should do some research...at the library, not the church gift shop.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • JC

      Nobody said anything about a subpar defense. That is an assumption you just made because he was given a public defender. And why would you do that?

      April 22, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  7. Scientist

    Even if this were anything other than another political stunt using religion as a basis, it would still be meaningless due to serious testing errors. You can't draw any meaningful conclusions from this due to 2 main problems.
    1- They made it very clear that the person who they were putting on trial is Jesus. That's obviously going to run some major biases in the decision because what religious person in their right mind would chose to execute the person that they believe is the son of their deity, and not feel guilt about it? This is a person that they spent their entire lives worshipping, not some person who they had never heard about until they were picked for trial jury.
    2- The crime that they used, although accurate to the religious texts, is one that is not relavent to the majority of American society. While there are regions of the world, like Pakastan, that will execute you for blasphemy, as well as some religious nutjobs in America that would if they could get away with it, the vast majority of Americans would not even view it as a legal crime, nevermind execute a person for it.
    The whole thing was just a stupid political stunt. While I support the cause of removing the death penalty, there are better ways to study the mindset of people when it comes to capital punishment

    April 22, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • JC

      They executed him when the same trial was done in Texas.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • No One Is Safe

      @JC – they'll gleefully execute *anybody* in texas.... oh, how i wish that hellhole would just secede already... the mean IQ of the remaining USA would instantly rise by one full standard deviation...

      April 23, 2011 at 12:55 am |
  8. richunix

    “Jeus Is LORD” Who made him the “LORD”? awwwww that’s right “The Council of Nicaea (325 CE) did, when they decided with the vote 368 – 365 (Arius followers) to assure the divinity of JESUS… Nice…can I get voted the next messiah?

    “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 11:53 am |
    • kells

      even though you are an athiest the LORD still LOVES you

      April 22, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  9. skeptic2

    How come all the pictures and staues representing Jesus look like a Max von Sydow look-a-like? I guess that's so we don't have to see him as he really was, a dark skinned, short haired middle eastern Jew, who, if he got on a TSA line today would have been kicked off the plane because he looked like an Arab terroirist. I mean come on folks, white skin, aquiline nose and blue eyes. Nobody 2,000 years ago in the Levant even remotely had those features. Oh well.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • No One Is Safe

      that's one of my favorites among the many delusional aspects of the man-on-a-stick fans... once went into a catholic church in coral gables, fl, where all the rich cuban exiles hang out in their multi-million-dollar homes... and there he was, bigger than life, hanging on a cross above the altar: the quintessential white guy, replete with blond hair and blue eyes, almost a dead ringer for kiefer sutherland... i cracked up laughing on the spot, and kept on giggling every time i spotted someone giving me a dirty look...

      April 23, 2011 at 12:52 am |
  10. Kevin K in Texas

    Jesus is actually either an ancient alien direct decendent of an ancient alien race (that still exists today). He would have been a remnent of the benovalent species of aliens that mated with humans and sparked the technology boom of the last 6000 years that was far more exponential than that of the previous 50,000 years of human existance. The Mayans, Egyptians, Peruvians, and various Pacific Islands like Easter Island are rampant with ancient alien interaction.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Kevin K in Texas

      ***correction: Jesus is actually either an ancient alien direct decendent of an ancient alien race (that still exists today). ****

      April 22, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Colin

      Well, now it makes much more sense.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • chief

      re kevin.... i think someones telling you to go back to your room for meds

      April 22, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • Evan

      Thanks for setting the record straight for all us sane people! 🙂

      April 22, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • Kevin K in Texas

      hey there should be an "or" in there... my bad... i am doing this while at work... Jesus is actually either an ancient alien OR direct decendent of an ancient alien race (that still exists today).. thanks.. and to all you haters there is more proof of aliens than of jesus.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  11. Christrein's

    I think the outcome would have been the same, albeit they might not have crucified him, but they must surely would have thrown him in jail on some trumped up charge. Remember cops get angry if they arrest somebody who's innocent, they would have to find some crime to pin it on him.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  12. Geezer

    I think he was gay. Why else would someone spend so much time with 12 other guys? I was probably the pitcher. Pitching man chowder.

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

      IDIOT, HE ALSO HAD WOMEN IN THIS GROUP....

      April 22, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Geezer

      I'm sorry you're right. He may have been bi. I still think he was partial to the kilbasa.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Know What

      normmm
      "IDIOT, HE ALSO HAD WOMEN IN THIS GROUP...."

      So what? H.omose.xuals don't hate nor disrespect women... they just don't want to have s.ex with them.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  13. Artist

    He would be just another delusional wackjob like koresh etc

    April 22, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • YBP

      Very much like Koresh: completely crazed, incredibly violent, sickeningly self-important, and thankfully self-destructive.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  14. stevie68a

    Today, his mother would be crucified, given how mothers screw up their sons heads.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • sandi105

      mommie issues, hunh stevie???

      April 22, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  15. Caleb

    Wow this was pointless.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • s2kMATTers

      No, that would be your life Caleb.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Steve

      Yeah, I second that.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • Steve

      (That the story is pointless that is)

      April 22, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  16. 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 11:46 am |
  17. Chris

    He may get off, but is father is gultiy of murder, child abuse, slavery and genocide, if we believe what the Bible says.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • sandi105

      Jesus of Nazareth was real; it is recorded in ancient text by the historian Josephus. The bible is an allegory written by many who never knew him.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • YBP

      Sandi, you're half right. The gospels were allegorical, written decades later, by non-Jews who consulted a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and got a lot of it wrong. But, if you know anything about Josephus, who he was, his personal story, and why he wrote "history" for the Romans, you'd understand that his testimony is equally suspect. Plus, he didn't write anything about Jesus that (a) wasn't already being written and said about Jesus, or (b) could have been interpolated by a monk in a medieval scriptorium who felt the need to invent new evidence for the existence of Jesus, since all the other evidence is not really evidence at all. There are a lot of scholarly books and arguments written about this. Look into it.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  18. dcleveland

    they would treat him as they do most delusional people.....medication....he'd be wondering the alleys doing the thorazine shuffle.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  19. Bubba Schmo

    The point is taken, but in reality the real point is that Jesus HAD to suffer and die on the cross, then rise from the dead; otherwise all your faith and belief is Christianity is empty and for nothing.

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

      But he is god. He makes the rules. Sounds to me more like an excuse for why he got himself nailed to a cross.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • Cateyes7

      I totally agree with you. With that being said, and according to Christianity, it was God's plan for Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. I know that there are some Jesus sympathizers but they are missing the point. He was the sacrificial lamb. In order for people to truly understand Christianity, there is no blame placed on who prosecuted, executed and testified against Jesus. It was all a part of the plan. God's plan.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • YBP

      Well, Bubba, that's Saint Paul talking. Paul invented the notion of vicarious redemption. Jesus, if he existed, would have been mortified (pardon the pun). It is a deeply flawed pagan philosophy, and highly immoral. It has nothing to do with Jesus' Kingdom of God message whatsoever. There are plenty of books written about this. I recommend Robert Funk, John Crossan and especially Bart Ehrman for easy reading. If you're more intellectual than you seem to be from this post, I recommend Paula Fredricksen, Joel Carmichael and Hyam Maccoby. Don't start with Elaine Pagels or Burton Mack. You'll never get through the first chapter. Other good scholars are Geza Vermes, E.P. Sanders and Uta Ranke-Heinemann. Look into it.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Bubba Schmo

      @YBP: 'The wisdom of the wise will frustrate them...' There is less written about Plato, yet no one argues that he existed. What your requesting is that I read a lot of athiest-slanted literature that was written about the Bible. Critics, basicly. I've read the book, I've read the history. I can no more win you over than you can me my friend.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Know What

      Bubba,

      It is immaterial if Plato existed. Any wisdom or hypotheses which are attributed to him, or anyone else, which have proven to be valid are what we are after. It does not matter who came up with them. Jesus, and many others, had some practical words of wisdom - that's all. The divine, supernatural, other-worldly claims have not been proven.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • Bubba Schmo

      Know what, Know What? – You can't prove beyond a shadow of a doubt what you had for lunch yesterday. The fact remains that faith is involved in your life every day.

      April 22, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • YBP

      Actually, Bubba, most, if not all of the authors that I recommended are Seminary Professors and New Testament Professors. They are the ones teaching our priests and pastors. Athiest-slanted? Having read them all, I should say not. In fact, that's where these guys and I part ways. I am the one that doesn't believe. Not them. But they did have something to do with it. Good luck.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
  20. Terry

    Trial? That would be a luxury. Nah, the gov't would've raided, burned and killed him and the followers. Probably in Texas somewhere

    April 22, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • sandi105

      Terry – it is the Corporate (today's Moneychangers) would have had Jesus eliminated

      April 22, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • YBP

      Correct. Pilate was notoriuous for eliminating rebels-terrorists, who in those days were violent religious fanatics, just like today, without trial.

      If this story were to be taking place today (and actually it is), America would be Rome, George W Bush would be Pontius Pilate, Dick Cheney would be Caiaphas and Osama Bin Laden would be Jesus. Or David Koresh.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.