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. mckillio

    If Jesus was all powerful and let him self die, isn't that equivalent to suicide, which is a sin. Is Jesus in hell?

    April 22, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Dina

      God knew his son was going to die long before mankind was on the this great earth. and he knew that the decision was made, it was written the Alpha and Omega was already in place. I believe your in need of a bible, perhaps a local bookstore will have 1 for you, Good luck! God Bless you and the day you get to stand @ the pearly Gates, only then can you trully question God'S LOVE for the world and his Children ! but you may not like it ! I hope you find peace and Rest in your heart !

      April 22, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • janitor4jesus

      Jesus did not take his own life, but gave it up...in love. If a parent insists of taking the place of their child, insisting the robber/etc. "shoot me, not them!" Has the parent committed suicide?

      April 22, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • Bernie

      So god got so made at us sinners, he cloned himself, transported himself into a virgin, had him self killed all the while, this all knowing god, knew, before each of us were born, every course of action humanity would ever take, yet did it anyway.
      And you nimrods believe this? wow

      April 22, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  2. Jen

    Even worse because humanity has fallen even further from God. Easter, Sunday worship, the symbol of the cross, "Christ"mas: all Pagan celebrations. Matthew 10:32-10:33 "32Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven.33But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven." Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior and I couldn't ask for anything greater. I will praise His name forever.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Bernie

      Common sense 101:1
      No one saw him move the stone, no one saw him actually leave the tomb

      April 22, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  3. SLT1208

    And where would we be today, if Jesus' life had not gone according to God's plan? ("Imaginary character"? Likened to Yogi Bear? Alien Contamination??? Alien Intervention??? Come on, people. Do you really dispute what 2 billion people in the world today believe??)

    April 22, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Rin

      Yes. Yes I would, in a friggin instant. There is no evidence of his existence. None. The power of Christian leaders and their close ties with successful imperialist governments and generations of indoctrination can easily keep a lie going in the minds of billions and last thousands of years. But while I think he was a made-up character, there were still good morals to be learned from whoever his story. He was all about peace and humility, kindness and charity. It's really fricking interesting, and moreso sad and pathetic to me that so many of the people who believe in him today think and behave the exact opposite of his teachings.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • Bob

      Yes. 2 billion people are that stupid.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • Know What

      2 billion people = approx. 33% of the world's population today.

      The percentage of people in olden days who thought that the Sun orbited the Earth was much higher than that. Did that make them correct?

      April 22, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  4. Noah Benzing

    Not a single judge would him guilty. He would walk. Unlike Mohammed the murderer/pedophile/thief.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  5. BL

    Guaranteed he'd be crucified again by the same hypocrites who commit crimes in his name. The last thing they'd want to hear is the truth of his teachings, long forgotten or perverted beyond recognition.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  6. Jon

    I thought Jesus was put on trial not because he was blasphemous but because he was leading the jews in not paying ridiculous land taxes? Did I miss something?

    April 22, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • Jim

      aaahhh...taxes had nothing to do with his trial, no evidence supports that – at all.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • cynix

      Yes, you did. He was tried for blasphemy. And he did not tell the people not to pay their taxes. "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's." if you will recall.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  7. Marc

    Jesus is not fabricated. He actually did exist. The biblical stories are probably made up though.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  8. educatedguess

    CNN has wasted my precious time. you won't fool me again.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • No One Is Safe

      oh, based on the postings i've seen from you so far, i'm quite certain this is *far* from the last time you'll be fooled....

      April 23, 2011 at 1:36 am |
  9. 13Directors

    He would be thought mentally ill and ignored, entirely.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  10. joyleo

    Every time when the TRUTH, WEAK, INNOCENT and POOR are put on trial, we are putting JESUS on trial again. But HE will come out successfully.

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

      Jesus is dead.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  11. Bugs Bunny

    Jesus is on trial everyday!

    April 22, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  12. Rin

    The people on the religious right who call themselves his followers who herald America's imperialist foreign policy and blame the poor for the greed of the rich today would never stand for a humble, hippie carpenter who turned the other cheek, denounced greed and war and other violence and the government's of men as wicked and inferior to God and stood up for the poor and the sick. They'd flog and whip him twice as much as the Romans did. They'd punch more nails in for good measure. They'd denounce him as a feminine, nancy boy and a Marxist/Socialist. They'd not only slap him, but punch him in the face repeatedly and call him un-American for saying God favors none of the governments of man, and that they are influences by Satan and worship idols. Not my words, Jesus'.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • chef dugan

      Hell, Christians would do that anyway just because he had long hair. They are the most intolerant group on the face of the earth.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Brian

      Why should American not look out for American interests? Did Romans not look out for Roman interests do the Chinese not look out for their interests? This is the way of the world, grow up!

      April 22, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  13. Ralph in Orange Park, FL

    Depends on if he got tried at Guantanamo.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  14. USA

    Exactly what is the point of all these stories of what if?? with Jesus. Please CNN find another topic to examine, your storyline if getting old.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  15. Knucklehead

    Jesus is sitting in Guantanamo with battery cables hooked up to him right now.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Brian

      If you think they have much in common you haven't met the guys we have locked up there. I was there for 2 years and I don't think any of them would be referred to as the Prince of Peace

      April 22, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  16. Jim

    Jesus would be sent to an insane asylum and no one would believe him because there would already be other established religions.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • chef dugan

      What makes you think he wasn't?

      April 22, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  17. Todd

    The audience applaused? If Jesus doesn't get executed, our sins are not washed by his blood.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Jim

      Yeah isn't that pretty much the most important part of the reason people worship him?

      April 22, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • chef dugan

      Well Todd, sin away and forget that rubbish. Since I wasn't born yet, and therefore did not sin, there was nothing to be "washed away". Not, if he was thinking of future sins, uncommited, hell, if they are "washed away": I might as well have some fun and so should you.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  18. Randall12

    Novelist Casper Parks spells it out in Perceptional Threshold, the Old Testament is direct result of Alien Contamination and the New Testament the result of Alien Intervention.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  19. Bill

    If Yogi Bear was put on trial today for stealing all those picnic baskets, and found guilty, would he be given community service or jail time? Since we're dealing with fictional characters anyway, let's sentence all of them.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Knucklehead

      Mr. Ranger's testimony would be thrown out, Yogi would walk, and Boo Boo would take the fall.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Noah Benzing

      Two hate-blinded Atheists in a row! LOL Even Pat Condell can tell you that Jesus of Nazareth existed as man in the flesh but I suppose it's not your fault for being raised the way you were.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • Jim

      Your comment is that of an ignorant child with a keyboard.

      Those not sympathetic attest to his crucifixion like the Christian-hating historian Tacitus – an official Roman historian.

      Its too bad the name "knucklehead" was already taken. Someone who spouts such ignorant claptrap and thinks he or she is intelligent is truly a knucklehead.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Bugs Bunny

      Who said anything about fictional characters??

      April 22, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Brian

      There are secondary sources that show Jesus was a real person. While you can certainly have disagreement about if he is the son of God or of there is a God there is little doubt he actually lived

      April 22, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Bernie

      Boo Boo had it in for Yogi all day long. Boo Boo gets 20 to life

      April 22, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  20. Felix

    Putting Jesus on trial would be ridiculous!
    How are you going to put an imaginary character on trial?

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

      What fictional Character are you talking about? Jesus is an actual historical figure. There is more on his life with primary source then any other historical person.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Noah Benzing

      hahaha.. you think Jesus didn't exist as a man? Wow, you really are blind with Atheism. I suppose you think Mohammed and Buddha were imaginary too? looool

      April 22, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Jim

      Your comment is that of an ignorant child with a keyboard.

      Those not sympathetic attest to his crucifixion like the Christian-hating historian Tacitus – an official Roman historian.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • chef dugan

      And if he were real, and history tells us he was, the only reason the whole senario took place was to prove there is life after death. The reasons he was brought to trial was a farce. The real issue for most of us is was he divine? Your pick, and either side could be right, so I don't think too much about it. When I'm dead I'll find out. Until then I choose not to take the word of some slick preacher wearing $2000 suits and prancing up and down a stage like the clown he or she is.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • educatedguess

      imaginary is the claim that he is the son of "God". a communist rebel under the name 'jesus" prolly existed for real, though.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • Religious sects

      Militant Atheism does a disservice to Atheists all around the world just like the militant religious does. Jesus has historical evidence of his existence. Although I don't believe in his divinity that doesn't mean the person did not exist. Atheists, like me, don't want false assumptions used on "either" side of the religion debate.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • bg in oregon

      If jesus had not died on the cross, today, he would still be dead. Get over it, people with imaginary friends need help.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • educatedguess

      felix the shill from wall street don't like the communist message "jesus" has been spreading around the world

      April 22, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • js

      mcmilligan. . . sorry that is just a blatant lie. HISTORICALLY-we don't know who jesus' father was. and that is less than we can say about most other prominent historical figures. besides. there isn't much to know about a dude that wandered around and talked about love.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • Jim

      I don't listen to slic perachers in $2K suits either – that is a false choice. The choice is not between rejection and following some tv personality. That is like saying either I am a Christian or I am going to listen to Richard Dawkins who is way over his head and uninformed in his books about God (esp his Delusion).

      Trying to say I can't be an atheist because of Dawkins is ridiculous in the same way as saying I am not a Christian because of some tv personality. The questions is whether or not atheism is true or not. The more important question is whether Jesus was divine. Neither claim is based on a pitiful "spokesperson."

      April 22, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • Jim

      "educatedguess"....now THAT is false advertising...

      April 22, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • MSfromCA

      Smugly superior comments sound just as bad from atheists as from theists.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • Felix

      There is none, zero actual evidence that "the" Jesus ever existed. The only so-called "evidence" is the Bible and as we all know, the Bible is full of bull.

      The evidence overwhelmingly shows that the Jesus' fable is molded after several mythological figures of the past.

      As for one or many, here's the opinion of a "militant atheist," as you would probably call him: "Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being." – Thomas Jefferson

      I've never seen such a short and concise description...

      Ultimately, it does't matter whether "the" Jesus, "a" Jesus or many Jesus existed as real people. But if Jesus is made up of many characters, then Jesus did not exist.

      And even if "the" Jesus existed, his divinity is made up.

      Of course I don't expect to convince any of you of this, but I think it's always good to hear diverging opinions.

      As for the "militant atheist" moniker, no, that's not the case. I'm just a rationalist and I like to test every claim for proof and evidence.

      Here's another "militant atheist" for you: "Yet this is trash that the Church imposes upon the world as the Word of God; this is the collection of lies and contradictions called the Holy Bible! this is the rubbish called Revealed Religion!" – Thomas Paine

      So feel free to keep insulting me (I kind of expect it), brush my comments aside, or call me a "militant atheist" if that makes you feel better. It would be nice to belong to the same group as some of our Founding Fathers.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • WordBearer

      Felix. You also are an Idiot. That one with a capital I.
      Thomas Paine wasn't a "militant atheist". If you had actually read more about the man than simply the Quote, you would have found that he was against the churches way of teaching back then. I was instigating free research into religion. He was getting other Americans to open up and study further. You should do more research before speaking.

      Out of curiousity, just what is it you believe in if it isn't God?

      April 22, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • Barlingwood

      the scoffing answers to your post are ignorant. Jesus is not a clear cut historical figure like Alexander the Great or Mohammed. It is possible that the figure in the narrative of the bible is a composite of several people. Obviously Jesus left no written word, and held no official post of power so any evidence of his existence is indirect. A very similar figure is Socrates. There is evidence that some elements of the narrative found i the bible are historical events and others can easily be proven false. Like any narrative the biblical story is a mix of both. Everything relating to his birth and childhood can be demonstrably shown to be a fairytale, similar to the stories of Kim Jong-Ils birth. That a charismatic figure gave the sermon on the mount and then was bagged with the help of a double agent and executed by the roman authorities has much more plausibility.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:56 am |
    • BJRMBA1

      There is actually very little evidence "Jesus" really existed but there is more than enough historical evidence to Mohammed likely was a real person and Buddha did indeed exist. The deeds and life of both are likely distorted over time. The idea of a virgin birth as well a great number of the stories of the bible predates Christianity and were lifted from older religions and cultures. Did you know that the Holiday of Christmas was celebrated in the spring for hundreds of years and was only moved to December to help convert Pagans who were celebrating Winter Solstice at that time? Winter Solstice is actually were the idea of decorating a tree and giving presents has its origin.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • David

      Jesus is a real person like Spiderman is a real person. Lots of people have written about them, and portrayed them in movies, but that doesn't make them real. The only source we have of the life and times of Jesus is the Bible, and there's no way to authenticate that these events occurred. Every historian that's mentioned Jesus, did so because believers at the time talked about him. We can compare these people to people nowadays who profess belief in psychics and alien abduction. Mentioning what they believe doesn't validate what they believe.

      May 17, 2011 at 7:17 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.