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. Daniel PH

    Considering that jesus was invented by the Roman Catholic Church I doubt Jesus will ever come back to earth.
    Ok lets pretend that Jesus was a real person, Jesus would stand trial for treason and sedition and found guility
    by a Jury of his peers, mostly christians and sent to prison in Cuba. Not much different then what is already
    report in the NT. Yes I could use the NT to prove Jesus was a criminal according to Roman law.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • WordBearer

      Daniel PH, If you don't believe in Jesus, then what do you believe?

      April 22, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • Carolyn

      Daniel, the RC invented Jesus?? Dude, you are filled with ignorance. Apparently you get your scholarly input from the backs of bubblegum wrappers.

      April 23, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  2. Swamp Yankee

    If Jesus walked America today – he'd be zonked out on some prescription pill that would help him ignore and cope with the staggering indecencies of our daily lives.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • Daniel PH

      Just because the NT says jesus was a drunkard, glutton and liked young boys doesn't mean he would
      do drugs too.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  3. Richk

    What is seriously the deal with CNN and the daily religion story???

    April 22, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • Jesusfreaker

      Oh, I don't know? Could it be Lent, Good Friday, Easter?

      April 22, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  4. The Jackdaw

    Jesus was a bigot:

    Matthew 15:22-26:
    A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession." Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said. He replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs."

    April 22, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • Daniel PH

      Jesus because Jesus didn't like Gentiles doesn't mean he hated dogs.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  5. allanhowls

    "Oh and who cares if Jesus would be found guilty or not? This scenario would never happen so I don't see the point wasting time trying to figure it out."

    Sarah, it already did, and plenty of Christians want to put just those laws in place.
    You are a liar and a hypocrite who understands not one whit of her purported faith.
    You really need to beg your god for forgiveness.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  6. WordBearer

    gogogopher. Your an idiot. Kings was in the old testament. Every thing changed in the new testament. The Trinity is from the New Testament. Get your math straight. What you people don't realize is that there is a holy war. If you don't believe in God or are mad at him for some reason then you should really look inside your self for that reason and make peace with it, not go around bashing others for their faith on a site like this that is simply about faith.
    I am charged, from my creator to go forth and spread the word as it has been presented to me. If you so feel compelled to do the same, then tell me this.... Who sent you?

    April 22, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • OnanismO

      What about the Native Americans who were completely inaccessible by anyone bearing the christian message in the years leading up to 1492? They didn't stand a chance did they? god was either really stupid or the message is not really that important after all. S T F U!

      April 22, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • WordBearer

      OnanismO. Who sent you to say those words?

      April 22, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • OnanismO

      No one SENT me! What drugs are you on?

      April 22, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • WordBearer

      You tell me what's up with you. I telling you that you should look inside yourself for an answer as to why your so angry and you tell me about the Native Americans ? It's exactly what I'm talking about. So why is it that you feel the way you do. where are your believes in religion comiing from, i.e (Who Sent You?) ?

      April 22, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • Godless

      "Your an idiot."

      Now that right there is funny.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • WordBearer

      So Godless. What is it that you believe in? That is besides simply name calling.

      April 22, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  7. Bernie

    Maybe he should use his super god powers to vanish from the court room and the death sentence.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  8. james

    Absurd! This about the death penalty, not Jesus...this is political, not about Jesus.....Theya re against the death penalty..OK...I am for it...Jesus was innocent...the murderers of Bishops family...are not....they are guilty of MURDER...Jesus said...go sin no more...what happens if she did??? The death penalty is the only way for evil to be dealt with...the laws of the old testament were awful...eye for eye was not practiced in the oilod testament...adulterers were executed...that isn't eye for an eye....many more examples are available.....Jesus said who shall ever shedman blood..so shall his blood be shed....Jesus made that statement...now...you tell me...who perverting the laws of Christ......those same peop[le ho profess...NO DEATH PENALTY..are abortion supports hiding under the evil tag of PRO CHOICE....don't fall for it people...some people are evil and executing them is RIGHTEOUS! Believe what Chrsir demanded...not what the leftist liberal demands,,, self righteousness...This article isn't about the passover..it is about drawing attenton to the themselves and their POLITICS!!

    April 22, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  9. weallowit

    There was nothing any man could have done. Jesus laid down his life for the sins of the world. He was the innocent lamb who was slain and he was the only one able to pay the "Sin price" for us, which was God's plan not mans. So, no matter at what point in history, be it today, or 2000 years ago, the outcome would have been the same.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      I suggest you take a trip to your local credit union and start flipping tables and screaming about God and see if they treat you like an "innocent lamb".

      April 22, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  10. Christianity-is-a-Shadow-of-Hinduism

    Who cares? Doesn't CNN have anything better to do? A great part of the world neither cares for nor recognizes the Jesus myth. Christians think the world revolves around their mythology – just like they once thought that the universe revolves around the earth. IT DOESN'T and the sooner everone realizes that, the better off the world will be.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • weallowit

      Political correctness = Blasphemy

      April 22, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  11. Yay for Science!

    The irony here is that blasphemy is not a crime in modern western society, so he wouldn't be on trial in the first place, except perhaps in the church where blasphamey isn't tolerated.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  12. OnanismO

    Since blasphemy is just MADE UP BS (blaspheming against what?! thin air? the Flying Spaghetti Monster? your imagination? whatever!), then it wouldn't even be in today's court system. Stupid article!

    April 22, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  13. ron

    One thing for sure: the religious right in this country would accuse him of being a traitor and a socialist.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      Jesus is healing people for free! He MUST be a socialist!

      He's also frmo the Middle East, he's probably one of those hated Muslims too!

      April 22, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  14. bryan

    If Jesus put to death, Wall Street will blow out loss of 500 Trillions dollars GONE...it went with Jesus to Heaven!

    April 22, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  15. ib42

    Isn't this a complete waste of time? Jesus Christ is crucified repeatedly every time we, especially 'christians' wake up in the morning. Our lives are so full of deceit, egoism. pompousness, lust, greed, and mostly pride (false) that to even call ourselves decent human beings is a sham. Not physically killing or robbing someone doesn't make us decent at all.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  16. Kidlantern67

    I don't think Christ would fare very well today. He would be labeled a socialist by Rush Limbaugh. Jesus' social justice campaign would be ridiculed by Glen Beck. Sean Hannity would call for Jesus' arrest as a radical socialist and Jesus would be executed after a 2 hour deliberation by fundamentalist who have long forgotten what Jesus is really about.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • Knucklehead

      He'd have been renditioned and would be long dead by now.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  17. Jesus a Liberal?

    Well one thing is for sure, conservatives would label Jesus as an extreme liberal and accuse him of promoting socialism. Make no mistake about it.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • NClaw441

      Jesus was no socialist. He called upon PEOPLE to take care of others. As for government, he said, "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's." No socialist would ever ask anyone to give God anything.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Richk

      ....and NClaw441 knows this how????????

      April 22, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Daniel PH

      True, jesus was a liberal and would have hated today's GOP for their support of the rich.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • austin30

      i think he would be a independent

      April 22, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Knucklehead

      Jesus advised the rich man to give away all his money to the poor and follow Jesus. Just like all the Republican candidates have.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  18. raj-newark

    This thought came across to me when i was really young and ousted from the convent school (for good) just because i was late by 5-10 min after the lunch hours for the assembly. if the same std applied to Jesus he will be crucified or be subjected to sub crucification torture or left to the animals to devour his flesh.

    The way some of the leaders has subjected to such kind of act, and came to light has eventually made us to think it over to become a better person, you wont know many others who would have died to such fate and remained unknown-despite having magical powers or love for humanity. If Jesus or Gandhi or other such leaders would have met the same fate they would have been unknown like million others.

    By knowing how and why and how he was crucified – we could educate ourself to become a better person not harming others. Coming to the point again – Yes Jesus will be crucified again and even in the future he will be crucified or subjected to tortourous act – there are just not enough educated people and never will be.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  19. Hmmmmmm

    Why don't we just ask him when he comes back?

    April 22, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • OOO

      I sent Jesus an email today, but I got his out of office. I guess he is back on Sunday...

      April 22, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  20. impartial jury?

    If the jury were composed of equal distributions of people of all faiths (including no religious faith), it might have approximated an impartial jury. As it was a jury composed entirely of Christian individuals, impartiality was likely not present in that deliberation room. We are told Jesus believes in the death penality because he accepted it for himself so he could die for the sins of mankind. In the present day, if people know the punishment for certain crimes is death and they choose to perpetrate those crimes, they should accept the punishment for which they knew was due all along. We are all responsible for our actions. Society depends on this.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:15 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.