The Wandering Jew is a legendary immortal man whose story began to spread in Europe during the early Middle Ages.
The original legend concerns a Jew who taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and was then cursed to walk the Earth until the Second Coming of the Messiah. 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 work as shoemaker or other tradesman, while sometimes he is the doorman at Pontius Pilate’s estate.
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The earliest extant manuscript with the legend is the Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover, where it appears in the part for the year 1228, under the title Of the Jew Joseph who is still alive awaiting the last coming of Christ.
At least from the 17th century the name Ahasver has been given to the Wandering Jew, apparently adapted from Ahasuerus, the Persian king in the Book of Esther, who was not a Jew, and whose very name among medieval Jews was an exemplum of a fool. This name may have been chosen because the Book of Esther describes the Jews as a persecuted people, scattered across every province of Ahasuerus’ vast empire, similar to the later Jewish diaspora in countries whose state and/or majority religions were forms of Christianity.
A variety of names have since been given to the Wandering Jew, including Matathias, Buttadeus, Paul Marrane, and Isaac Laquedem which is a name for him in France and the Low Countries, in popular legend as well as in a novel by Dumas.
Where German or Russian are spoken, the emphasis has been on the perpetual character of his punishment and he is known as “Ewige Jude” and “vechnyy zhid (вечный жид)”, the Eternal Jew. In French and other Romance languages, the usage has been to refer to the wanderings, as in French “le Juif errant”, and this has been followed in English from the Middle Ages, as the Wandering Jew. In Finnish he is known as Jerusalemin suutari (Shoemaker of Jerusalem), implying he was a cobbler by his trade.
Origin and evolution
The origins of the legend are uncertain; perhaps one element is the story in Genesis of Cain, who is issued with a similar punishment – to wander over the earth, scavenging and never reaping, although without the related punishment of endlessness. According to Jehoshua Gilboa, many commentators have pointed to Hosea 9:17 as a statement of the notion of the “eternal/wandering Jew”. According to some sources, the legend stems from Jesus’ words given in Matthew 16:28:
Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, εἰσίν τινες ὧδε ἑστῶτες, οἵτινες οὐ μὴ γεύσωνται θανάτου, ἕως ἂν ἴδωσιν τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐρχόμενον ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ αὐτοῦ.
Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. (Traduction: New International Version)
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. (Traduction: King James Version)
A belief that the disciple whom Jesus loved would not die was apparently popular enough in the early Christian world to be denounced in the Gospel of John:
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? When, therefore, Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, Lord, and what shall he do? Jesus saith to him, If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me. 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
Another passage in the Gospel of John speaks about a guard of the high priest who slaps Jesus (John 18:19-23, KJV). Earlier, the Gospel of John talks about Simon Peter striking the ear from a servant of the high priest, named Malchus (John 18:10, KJV). Although this servant is probably not the same guard who struck Jesus, Malchus is nonetheless one of the many names given to the wandering Jew in later legend.
Extant manuscripts have shown that as early as the time of Tertullian (c. 200)some Christian proponents were likening the Jewish people to a “new Cain”, asserting that they would be “fugitives and wanderers (upon) the earth”.
Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (b. 348) writes in his Apotheosis (c. 400): “From place to place the homeless Jew wanders in ever-shifting exile, since the time when he was torn from the abode of his fathers and has been suffering the penalty for murder, and having stained his hands with the blood of Christ whom he denied, paying the price of sin.
Some scholars have identified components of the legend of the Eternal Jew in Teutonic legends of the Eternal Hunter, some features of which are derived from Wotan mythology.
“In some areas the farmers arranged the rows in their fields in such a way that on Sundays the Eternal Jew might find a resting place. Elsewhere they assumed that he could rest only upon a plough or that he had to be on the go all year and was allowed a respite only on Christmas.”
A variant of the Wandering Jew legend is recorded in the Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover around 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 reported to be still alive. The archbishop answered that he had himself seen such a man 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 till the last day.” The Armenian bishop also reported that Cartaphilus had since converted to Christianity and spent his wandering days proselytizing and leading a hermit‘s 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 truth of the Christian religion. The same Armenian told the story at Tournai in 1243, according to the Chronicles of Phillip Mouskes, (chapter ii. 491, Brussels, 1839). After that, Guido Bonatti writes people saw the Wandering Jew in Forlì (Italy), in the 13th century; other people saw him in Vienna and elsewhere.
The figure of the doomed sinner, forced to wander without the hope of rest in death till the second coming of Christ, impressed itself upon the popular medieval 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 and Russia he is referred to as Der Ewige Jude (the immortal, or eternal, Jew) and vechnyy zhid (вечный жид), while in Romance-speaking countries he is known as Le Juif Errant (the Wandering Jew) and L’Ebreo Errante; the English form, probably because it is derived from the French, has followed the Romance. As well as El Judío Errante (The Wandering Jew), he is known in Spanish as Juan [el que] Espera a DIOS, (John [who] waits for GOD).
There were claims of sightings of the Wandering Jew throughout Europe, since at least 1542 in Hamburg up to 1868 in Harts Corners, New York. Joseph Jacobs, writing in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, commented “It is difficult to tell in any one of these cases how far the story is an entire fiction and how far some ingenious impostor took advantage of the existence of the myth”. It has been alleged by an 1881 writer, who however cites no instances, that the supposed presence of the Wandering Jew has occasionally been used as a pretext for incursions by Gentiles into Jewish quarters during the late Middle Ages, when the legend was accepted as fact.
Another legend about Jews, the so-called “Red Jews“, was similarly common in Central Europe in the Middle Ages.
17th and 18th centuries
In France, the Wandering Jew appeared in Simon Tyssot de Patot‘s La Vie, les Aventures et le Voyage de Groenland du Révérend Père Cordelier Pierre de Mésange (1720).
In England the Wandering Jew makes an appearance in one of the secondary plots in Matthew Lewis‘s Gothic novel The Monk (1796). The Wandering Jew is depicted as an exorcist whose origin remains unclear. The Wandering Jew also plays a role in St. Leon (1799) by William Godwin. The Wandering Jew also appears in two English broadside ballads of the 17th and 18th centuries, The Wandering Jew, and The Wandering Jew’s Chronicle. The former recounts the biblical story of the Wandering Jew’s encounter with Christ, while the latter tells, from the point of view of the titular character, the succession of English monarchs from William the Conqueror through either King Charles II (in the 17th century text) or King George II and Queen Caroline (in the 18th century version).
In ideology (19th century and after)
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the figure of the “Wandering Jew” as a legendary individual had begun to be identified with the fate of the Jewish people as a whole. After the ascendancy of Napoleon Bonaparte at the end of the century and the emancipating reforms in European countries connected with the policy of Napoleon and the Jews, the “Eternal Jew” became an increasingly “symbolic … and universal character” as the continuing struggle for Jewish emancipation in Prussia and elsewhere in Europe in the course of the nineteenth century gave rise to what came to be referred to as “the Jewish Question”.
Before Kaulbach’s mural replica of his painting Titus destroying Jerusalem had been commissioned by the King of Prussia in 1842 for the projected Neues Museum, Berlin, Gabriel Riesser‘s essay “Stellung der Bekenner des mosaischen Glaubens in Deutschland” (“On the Position of Confessors of the Mosaic Faith in Germany”) had been published in 1831 and the journal “Der Jude, periodische Blätter für Religions- und Gewissensfreiheit” (The Jew, Periodical for Freedom of Religion and Thought) had been founded in 1832. In 1840 Kaulbach himself had published a booklet of Explanations identifying the main figures for his projected painting, including that of the Eternal Jew in flight as an outcast for having rejected Christ. In 1843 Bruno Bauer‘s book The Jewish Question was published, to which Karl Marx responded by an article with the title “On the Jewish Question“.
A caricature which had first appeared in a French publication in 1852, depicting the legendary figure with “a red cross on his forehead, spindly legs and arms, huge nose and blowing hair, and staff in hand”, was co-opted by anti-Semites. It was shown at the Nazi exhibition Der Ewige Jude in Germany and Austria in 1937–1938. A reproduction of it was exhibited at Yad Vashem in 2007 (shown here).
The exhibition had been held at the Library of the German Museum in Munich from November 8, 1937 to January 31, 1938 showing works that the Nazis considered to be “degenerate art“. A book containing images of these works was published under the title “The Eternal Jew”. It had been preceded by other such exhibitions in Mannheim, Karlsruhe, Dresden, Berlin and Vienna. The works of art displayed at these exhibitions were generally executed by avant-garde artists who had become recognized and esteemed in the 1920s, but the objective of the exhibitions was not to present the works as worthy of admiration but to deride and condemn them.