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The Wandering Jew by Gustave Doré.

The Wandering Jew is a figure from Christian folklore, a Jewish man who, according to legend, taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and was then cursed to walk the earth until the Second Coming. The exact nature of the wanderer's indiscretion varies in different versions of the tale, as do aspects of his character; sometimes he is said to be a shoemaker or other tradesman, sometimes he is the doorman at Pontius Pilate's estate, and presumably a Roman rather than a Jew.

When some interpreters see the "Wandering Jew" as a metaphorical personification of the Jewish diaspora, the subtext that links the two is that the destruction of Jerusalem was in retribution for Jewish responsibility for the Crucifixion. A more allegorical view claims instead that the "Wandering Jew" personifies any individual who has been made to see the error of his wickedness, if the mocking of the Passion epitomizes the callousness of mankind toward the suffering of human beings.

A variety of names have been given for the Wandering Jew, including Ahasuerus, Buttadeus, Cartophilus, Isaac Laquedem (a name attributed to him in France, in popular legend as well as in a novel by Alexandre Dumas, see below), and Juan Espera en Dios (Spanish: "John [who] waits for God"). There also exists a Jewish family line with the surname Wander. They mostly originate from Galicia in Central Europe.

Origin of the legend

According to L. Neubaur, the legend is founded on Jesus' words given in Matthew 16:28:

Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. (King James Version)

This is quoted in the earliest German pamphlet of 1602.

A belief that the disciple whom Jesus loved would not die before the Second Coming was apparently popular enough in the early Christian world to be denounced in the Gospel of John:

20. And Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple following whom Jesus loved, who had also leaned on His breast at the supper, and had said, Lord, which is he who betrayeth Thee? 21. When, therefore, Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, Lord, and what shall he do? 22. Jesus saith to him, If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou Me. 23. Then this saying went forth among the brethren, that that disciple would not die; yet Jesus had not said to him that he would not die; but, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? (John 21:20-23, KJV)

An actual predecessor of the Wandering Jew is recorded in the Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover in the year 1228. An Armenian archbishop, then visiting England, was asked by the monks of St Albans Abbey about the celebrated Joseph of Arimathea, who had spoken to Jesus, and was still alive. The archbishop answered that he had himself seen him in Armenia, and that his name was Cartaphilus, a Jewish shoemaker, who, when Jesus stopped for a second to rest while carrying His cross, hit Him, and told Him "Go on quicker, Jesus! Go on quicker! Why dost Thou loiter?", to which Jesus, "with a stern countenance", is said to have replied: "I shall stand and rest, but thou shalt go on til the last day." The Armenian bishop also reported that Cartaphilus had since converted to Christianity and spent his wandering days proselytizing and leading a hermitic life.

Matthew Paris included this passage from Roger of Wendover in his own history; and other Armenians appeared in 1252 at the Abbey of St Albans, repeating the same story, which was regarded there as a great proof of the Christian religion (Matthew Paris, "Chron. Majora", ed. Luard, London, 1880, v. 340-341). The same archbishop appeared at Tournai in 1243, telling the same story, according to the Chronicles of Phillip Mouskes, (chapter ii. 491, Brussels, 1839).

The legend became more popular in the early 17th century after it appeared in a pamphlet of four leaves entitled Kurtze Beschreibung und Erzählung von einem Juden mit Namen Ahasverus (short description and tale of a Jew with the name Ahasuerus). This professes to have been printed at Leiden in 1602 by Christoff Crutzer, but no printer of that name has been discovered, and the real place and printer can not be ascertained. The legend spread quickly throughout Germany, no less than eight different editions appearing in 1602; altogether forty appeared in Germany before the end of the eighteenth century. Eight editions in Dutch and Flemish are known; and the story soon passed to France, the first French edition appearing in Bordeaux, 1609, and to England, where it appeared in the form of a parody in 1625 (Jacobs and Wolf, "Bibliotheca Anglo-Judaica", p. 44, No. 221). The pamphlet was translated also into Danish and Swedish; and the expression "eternal Jew" is current in Czech.

A variation on the story was later applied to Longinus, the soldier who pierced Jesus' side while he hung on the cross. Yet another version declares that the wanderer is the attendant Malchus, whose ear Saint Peter cut off in the garden of Gethsemane (John 18:10), who was condemned to wander until the second coming. His action is associated in some way with the scoffing of Jesus, and is so represented in a broadsheet which appeared in 1584.

The Wandering Jew in literature

The figure of the doomed sinner, forced to wander without the hope of rest in death till the millennium, impressed itself upon the popular imagination, mainly with reference to the seeming immortality of the wandering Jewish people. These two aspects of the legend are represented in the different names given to the central figure. In German-speaking countries he is referred to as "Der Ewige Jude" (the immortal, or eternal, Jew), while in Romance-speaking countries he is known as "Le Juif Errant" and "L'Ebreo Errante"; the English form, probably because derived from the French, has followed the Romance. The Spanish name is Juan Espera en Dios, "John [who] waits for God", or, more commonly, "El Judío Errante".

The Wandering Jew makes an appearance in one of the secondary plots in Matthew Lewis's Gothic novel "The Monk," first published in 1796. The legend also has been the subject of poems by Schubart, Aloys Schreiber, Wilhelm Müller, Nikolaus Lenau, Adelbert von Chamisso, August Wilhelm von Schlegel, Julius Mosen (an epic, 1838), and Ludwig Köhler; of novels by Franz Horn (1818), Oeklers, and Levin Schücking; and of tragedies by Ernst August Friedrich Klingemann ("Ahasuerus", 1827) and Joseph Christian Freiherr von Zedlitz (1844). Hans Christian Andersen made his "Ahasuerus" the Angel of Doubt, and was imitated by Seligmann Heller in a poem on "The Wandering of Ahasuerus", which he afterward developed into three cantos. Robert Hamerling, in his "Ahasver in Rom" (Vienna, 1866), identifies Nero with the Wandering Jew. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had designed a poem on the subject, the plot of which he sketched in his "Dichtung und Wahrheit".

In France, Edgar Quinet published his prose epic on the legend in 1833, making the subject the judgment of the world; and Eugene Sue wrote his Le Juif Errant in 1844. From the latter work, in which the author connects the story of Ahasuerus with that of Herodias, most people derive their knowledge of the legend. Grenier's poem on the subject (1857) may have been inspired by Gustave Doré's designs published in the preceding year, perhaps the most striking of Doré's imaginative works. One should also note Paul Féval's La Fille du Juif Errant (1864), which combines several fictional Wandering Jews, both heroic and evil, and Alexandre Dumas' incomplete Isaac Laquedem (1853), a sprawling historical saga.

In England — besides the ballad given in Thomas Percy's "Reliques of Ancient English Poetry" and reprinted in Francis James Child's "English and Scotch Ballads" (1st ed., viii. 77) — there is a drama entitled The Wandering Jew, or Love's Masquerade, written by Andrew Franklin (1797). William Godwin's novel St. Leon (1799) has the motive of the immortal man, and Percy Bysshe Shelley introduced Ahasuerus into his "Queen Mab". George Croly's "Salathiel", which appeared anonymously in 1828, treated the subject in an imaginative form; it was reprinted under the title "Tarry Thou Till I Come" (New York, 1901).

In Russia, the legend of the Wandering Jew appears in an incomplete epic poem by Vasily Zhukovsky]] (Василий Андреевич Жуковский), "Ahasuerus" (Агасфер, 1857) and in another epic poem by Wilhelm Küchelbecker (Вильгельм Карлович Кюхельбекер), "Ahasuerus, a Poem in Fragments" (Агасвер, поэма в отрывках), written from 1832-1846 but not published until 1878, long after the poet's death. Aleksandr Pushkin (Александр Сергеевич Пушкин) also began a long poem on Ahasuerus (Агафер, 1826) but abandoned the project quickly, completing under thirty lines.

In Argentina, the topic of the Wandering Jew has appeared several times in the work of writer and professor Enrique Anderson Imbert, particularly in his short-story El Grimorio (The Grimoire), included in the eponymous book. Anderson Imbert refers to the Wandering Jew as El Judío Errante or Ahasvero (Ahasuerus) indistinctly.

By the dawn of the twentieth century Jewish writers and artists had apropriated the powerful symbol to express the suffering of exile and hope of the rebirth of the Jewish state. The great Soviet satyrists Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov had their hero Ostap Bender tell the story of the Wandering Jew's death at the hands of Ukranian Nationalists in The Little Golden Calf.

In the post-apocalyptic science-fiction book A Canticle For Leibowitz, written by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and published in 1959, the Wandering Jew is the only character who appears in all three novellas. He observes the progress of the world and the abbey of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz in the two thousand years or so after a nuclear holocaust.

The Wandering Jew in comic books

The Wandering Jew is alluded to being the DC character Phantom Stranger. According to one origin story, the Phantom Stranger, then known as Isaac, had his wife and child murdered by King Herod's army in effort to kill Jesus as a young boy. In a bid for revenge, Isaac bribed a guardsman to allow him to whip Jesus during his execution. It was then that Jesus sent Isaac to walk away from his home until Doomsday.

Over time, Isaac's anger waned and he found himself helping those in need and battling paranormal forces under the guise of the Phantom Stranger.

Character in a motion picture

In the 1988 film The Seventh Sign this legendary character appears as a Father Lucci, who identifies himself as the centuries' old Cartophilus, Pilate's porter, who was one who took part in the scourging of Jesus Christ before his crucifixion. He wishes to assist in bringing about the end of the world in order that his interminable wandering might come to an end as well.

Related legends

Heinrich Heine noted a strong correspondence between the legend of the Wandering Jew and that of The Flying Dutchman. Similar legends involve the origins of the gypsies. In one version, the gypsies descended from the blacksmith who created the nails used in the Crucifiction. The gypsies' constant wandering and exclusion were therefore explained by their betrayal of Jesus much in the same way the exclusion and pogroms against Jews were explained. There is an alternate version told by gypsies in which a clever gypsy stole some of the nails before Jesus was put upon the cross, thus easing his suffering a little bit and being blessed for all time by Christ. In Genesis, Cain is issued with a similar punishment — to go to the Land of Nod (which means 'wandering'), and wander over the earth, never reaping a harvest again, but scavenging. The Book of Mormon includes the Three Nephites who also became immortal after interacting with Jesus. They were given immortality as a reward, however, rather than a punishment. Another doomed wanderer is found in the Irish tale of Jack-o'-lantern. The Mahabharata tells the tale of Ashwathama, who survived the great war and was cursed to live as a leper for his crime of killing warriors whilst they slept. He is one of the favorite unresolved characters in Indian mythos.


  • Anderson, George K. The Legend of the Wandering Jew. Providence: Brown University Press, 1965. xi, 489 p.; reprint edition ISBN 0874515475

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