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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. David Withun

    This may be the stupidest thing that I have ever wasted precious moments of my life reading. In short: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hfYJsQAhl0

    How about some decent content for Good Friday and Easter, CNN?

    April 22, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • MikeBell

      I agree. This article isn't about Jesus; it's about an activist promoting their opposition to the death penalty.
      It is a farce.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Jesusfreaker

      Everyone knows that God is pro death penalty. He's also pro torture.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  2. Chitown Jason

    If Jesus were on trial today, he would have been sentenced 5 years from now...

    April 22, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • MikeBell

      The Muslim world would have stoned him without a trial.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Jesusfreaker

      In the Muslim world Jesus would have blown himself up.

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

    That is a great waste of time with this speculation. The crucifixion has already occurred at the point of time God Himself planned. Period.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • Jesusfreaker

      This mock trial is all part of God's plan and therefore not a waste of time. Right?

      April 22, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  4. rcamero

    Interesting comments, specious trial and silly event. Jesus' good news was regarding the Kingdom of God being at hand, and if you follow Him on that, it's still true. If God is all-powerful, He's always had the ability to pardon sin, crucifixion or not, and He's always had the power to grant eternal life, resurrection or not, and He still has the power to reveal Himself to men in whatever guises He chooses, scripturally sound or not. That the events unfolded as they have, including the delayed writing about the events, including the persecutions and theological developments, including the growth and fragmentations of the church – this should give all believers pause and reason to reflect on how God has worked in the world and if/how He still does.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  5. Jesusfreaker

    The majority of the juries voting on that issue found that the death sentence is not warranted.”

    There was applause from the audience.

    Applause??? Don't they realize that if Jesus hadn't been executed they would still be sacrificing lambs and perhaps their first born? Somebody had to kill Jesus.

    On the other hand, if Jesus hadn't been killed then the holocaust never would have happened. Maybe the Jews died for Jesus' sins rather than the other way around.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  6. Michael

    I wasn't aware it was illegal to claim you are god in today's United States. It might be a little weird, and perhaps warrant some psychiatric help. But certainly not send you to jail or get you executed. Of course, that option was some how left out of this mock trial huh? Not guilty by reason of insanity? I mean this is a guy who claimed he was god after all....

    April 22, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • oneSTARman

      the ROMANS weren't worried about a petty God ...they could not permit a KING

      April 22, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • Michael

      The Romans weren't worried about anything. Neither Pontius Pilate, nor Herod wanted to execute Jesus. But the Jews were so persistent, than finally Pilate gave into their demands and just let them have what they wanted.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • oneSTARman

      A man bites into what he bought from the 'HOT PORK PIE' stand – hes spits it out – returns to the stand a says "This pie is neither PORK nor HOT!" the vendor replies, "Oh thats just what we CALL them" The JEWS killed Jesus because they were ALL RILED UP – like saying the US caused 911 because we are Rich

      April 22, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Hugo

      I thought Herod was a Jew...???

      April 22, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  7. Dave

    wake up, the man was murdered for sticking up for HUMANITY. our God given rights. It's our leaders that are the TERRORISTS.

    that's right, i fuking said it

    truthknowledge. com

    April 22, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Michael

      Really? That's not what my Bible says. My Bible is quite clear that the given reason he was executed is blasphemy by claiming to be god.

      Of course, historically, the real reason he was executed is because he was a rabble rouser, and both the Jews and the Romans feared that he would start a revolt against Rome. The Romans obviously didn't want that. And the Jews didn't want it either because Rome was known for putting down revolts with very heavy tactics, and making examples out of people who were thought to be involved in a revolt.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  8. oneSTARman

    YOU SO FUNNY! – Talking about JURIES when a TERRORIST like him and the 'Thieves' that were Crucified with him – they were inciting INSURRECTION against the Empire of the Western World (Think PALESTINIANS Throwing ROCKS at TANKS) Jesus would have been GITMO bound with a Black Bag over his Head – Kidnapped at Night – so none of the RABBLE (read US) would know about it.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Yeah, Jesus was well-known for casting stones......right.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • *SIGH*

      *sigh* some people on here don't understand the concept of simile/metaphor.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  9. Faithless

    Well, at least this is one Middle-Eastern man who's not on trial for terrorism.

    I agree with Reality's statement. In our modern world of psychiatry and medicine, Jesus would've been laughed at for being a total whack-job. Just imagine the headlines, "Man in prison claims to have changed water into wine. Man in prison claims to have walked on liquid water." Blah blah. There are "prophets" all over the world with "miracles" and "special powers" that we immediately disprove as frauds. Why are people so convinced that Jesus was legit?

    April 22, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      A middle eastern man that flipps tables of money changers? oh, thats terrorism if I ever saw it!

      April 22, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Isaiah 2:11-17

      11 The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the LORD alone shall be exalted in that day.
      12 For the day of the LORD of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low:
      13 And upon all the cedars of Lebanon, that are high and lifted up, and upon all the oaks of Bashan,
      14 And upon all the high mountains, and upon all the hills that are lifted up,
      15 And upon every high tower, and upon every fenced wall,
      16 And upon all the ships of Tarshish, and upon all pleasant pictures.
      17 And the loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be made low: and the LORD alone shall be exalted in that day.

      Amen.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  10. Dave

    I'm sure Jesus would be in favor of the death penalty, carry a gun and denounce healthcare for all.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      He believed in HMO's . Healing Miracle Organizations.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  11. MikeBell

    Who has the 'moral' authority to make me or a family member an 'unwilling' victim?
    I will not surrender to a beast that seeks to destroy anyone. And any beast that has no ability to repent of afflicting others must be put down.
    Turning the other cheek is for the offender to remove all doubt of their intent or repent. Once that doubt is removed then the consequence for their actions must be dealt out.
    There is little difference between taking a life through a deserved execution or a deserved life-long incarceration. Both are intended to take the life of the offender. If the incarceration does not do that then it is not incarceration but a life-long retreat.
    The article depicts a misguided attempt at activism rather than justice or a moral responsibility.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Of course, the perp didn't break any law. The whole case would be thrown out on Consti.tutional grounds. However, there is one HUGE difference between death and a life sentence. If a mistake is made apologizing to a corpse is not very effective at all. Besides, a "life" sentence is actually more cruel than the death penalty.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  12. SLP

    When Jesus told the rich young ruler that in order for him to get to heaven, he needed to sell all of his possessions and follow Him, it was because he knew this particular man had an attachment to his possessions that came before his love for God. Having money isn't within itself wrong. Just because Jesus said that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God didn't mean that the rich man couldn't be saved and go to heaven. Anything in your life that comes before God needs to be put in its proper place. For this rich young ruler, it was his money. People need to stop using this as evidence that Jesus doesn't like rich people. He has no problem with people having money, afterall, He is the giver of all things. It is how they view and what they do with their money that concerns Him. He also doesn't advocate the government taking people's money and giving it to others. That is up to the individual to do. So there goes your Jesus was a socialist theory also. Socialists steal peoples money and the last time I checked, Jesus wasn't very into stealing.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  13. Joe

    If Juses was on trial today he would be denounced as a communist by TP and sentenced accordingly!

    April 22, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • MikeBell

      B.S.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Wrong, a socialist.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  14. Tim

    If you think Jesus should have been jailed for life rather than crucified, you must not have much faith then. Jesus HAD to die on the cross for all of us. Through His sacrifice, we are given a chance at salvation.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Also, it was his escape plan. "Die" on the cross, get "buried", jump up and run away.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • San Onofre Surfer

      Isn't that exactly the point here ? That sort of knee-jerk, narrow minded point of view, slapped onto these historical events may be why we are talking about this today.

      Oh he WOULD be found guilty today. He entered into that city, (where the economic structure was almost totally based on ritual p-ur-ifi-cation, and ritual s-ac-ri-fi-ce. You had to PAY to get a ritual bath, and ritual meals, and buy animals for their ritual burnings), duruing the major festival of the year. He overturned the desks of the "moneychangers", where they exchanged, for a fee, the Roman currency to the local currency, which they HAD to use to perform the rituals according to custom. He was seen as a HUGE threat to all that, and acted out his op-po-sition to it. Unfortunately for him, the Romans were the civil authorities, and they c-ru-ci-fi-ed many many criminals, all the time.

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

      And how exactly is his getting nailed to a chunk of wood supposed to do that? This is one fundamental bit of idiocy that no Christian can properly explain.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  15. Religious sects

    I was unaware that "blasphemy" was a crime or that it is a death penalty crime in todays court system in the US ??

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

      religious sect, communism that jesus espouses is blespheme to wall street parasites.

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

    You will eventually know CNN and rest of the world when you depart this earth but then it might be too late for you to repent and trust in Him. Eternity awaits, it's just where that eternity be for you heaven or hell is up to your response to His work and your SINCERE faith in Him.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  17. js

    Now if only the Christians would try and be scientists rather than lawyers they would learn about finding the truth rather than bending it......

    April 22, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • Frank Rzzo

      BRAVO

      April 22, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Hugo

      George Washington Carver

      April 22, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  18. bdgfn

    Seriously? It's nice to see that all the money this church brings in goes to such a worthy cause.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  19. Reality

    Once again, Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Some early and most contemporary NT experts (see below for a partial listing) after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospel being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European, white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices.

    H.S. Reimarus
    R. Bultmann
    E. Kasemann
    Earl Doherty
    Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy
    Alvar Ellegård
    G. A. Wells
    Gregory Riley
    Robert Eisenman
    John Dominic Crossan
    Robert Funk
    Burton Mack
    Stephen J. Patterson
    Marcus Borg
    Stevan Davies
    Geza Vermes
    Richard Horsley
    Hyam Maccoby
    Gerd Theissen
    Bart Ehrman
    Paula Fredriksen
    Gerd Lüdemann
    John P. Meier
    E. P. Sanders
    Robert H. Stein
    Karen Armstrong
    Albert Schweitzer (The Quest for the Historical Jesus)
    Mahlon Smith
    Karen Pagels

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

      The sluggard is wiser in his own conceit than seven men that can render a reason.

      Proverbs 26:16

      Amen.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Sam

      He never would even have been arrested. No law against speaking out to the masses. Even if arrested what would the charges be? Creating a disturbance. Not having a permit. Wouldn't even get 3 days in jail.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Crusader K

      "magic man"..."mumbo jumbo"...heh...seriously. What did you ask God to do that he did not and it made you angry for the rest of your life?

      April 22, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • Know What

      Crusader K
      " What did you ask God to do that he did not and it made you angry for the rest of your life?"

      Perhaps that would be *your* shallow, egocentric reason for not believing. It is not mine. I do not believe because I do not have evidence that a god *does* anything.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Crusader K

      Know What, It appears that I'M not the one who has problems with belief. I can look at the universe on a clear night, the peace in a newborn baby's face, the redemption of substance abuser and see God. I don't "need" God to appear in a burning bush or multiply loaves and fish for me. If you're waiting for a voice to come from on high and Charlton Heston to present you with some stone tablets to give you a reason to believe, you're gonna be waiting a loooong time.

      April 22, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
  20. educatedguess

    wall street parasites want to believe that jesus was killed and his message has been erased.

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

      He would be evaluated by psychologist, as he states, and believed he was the son of god. It would then be rulled that he was incopitent to stand trial due to that belief, he would be placed in a mental facility where he would be on a countless number of drugs. Unfortunately, this is how the modern day trial would go for him .

      April 22, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Rocky

      Jesus would not have been tried today. He'd of been place in and insane asylum like the rest of those who claim to be Jesus. Or burned ... look what happened to David Koresh.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      The point is moot, Jesus broke no modern law. He would not have been tried at all. He would be out wandering among the thousands of others claiming to be him.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • jesus

      This is sooo stupid. Common...is religion like crack? people seem to be numbed when they start believing things in a centuries old book for facts relevant today!
      It is a cult.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Hugo

      @jesus – So, we shouldn't believe "love your neighbor?" What is it you are trying to say?

      April 22, 2011 at 1:21 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.