Wandering Jew

See also Wandering Jew (plant) for a plant of the same name.

The Wandering Jew is a figure from Christian folklore. The legend relates that a Jewish shoemaker, taunting Jesus on the way to crucifixion, was told by him to "go on forever till I return". The shoemaker was thus punished for his indiscretion by being forced to wander the earth until the second coming of Jesus.

When some interpreters see the "wandering Jew" as a metaphorical personification of the Jewish diaspora, the anti-Semitic 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 (or Ahasverus)
  • Buttadaeus (or Buttadeu)
  • Cartaphilus
  • Juan Espera en Dios


Origin of the legend

The legend first appeared in a pamphlet of four leaves entitled "Kurtze Beschreibung und Erzhlung von einem Juden mit Namen Ahasverus". 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.

According to L. Neubaur, the legend is founded on the 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.

Another legend arose in the Church that St. John would not die before the second coming of Jesus. From John 21:20-23:

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?

Yet another version declares that it 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. 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 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; on passing Jesus carrying the cross he had said: "Go on quicker", Jesus thereupon answering: "I go; but thou shalt wait till I come".

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 is said to have appeared at Tournai in 1243, telling the same story, which is given in the "Chronicles of Phillip Mouskes", ii. 491, Brussels, 1839.

Claims of sightings

The various appearances claimed for him were at Hamburg in 1547; in Spain in 1575; at Vienna, 1599; Lbeck, 1601; Prague, 1602; Lbeck, 1603; Bavaria, 1604; Ypres, 1623; Brussels, 1640; Leipsic, 1642; Paris, 1644; Stamford, 1658; Astrakhan, 1672; Frankenstein, 1676; Munich, 1721; Altbach, 1766; Brussels, 1774; and Newcastle, 1790. The last appearance mentioned appears to have been in the United States in the year 1868, when he was reported to have visited a Mormon named O'Grady (see Desert News, September 23, 1868). Obviously, it is most likely that some impostors may have presented themselves as "the wandering Jew".

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"

The legend has been the subject of poems by Schubart, Schreiber (1807), W. Mller, Lenau, Chamisso, Schlegel, Julius Mosen (an epic, 1838), and Koehler; of novels by Franzhorn (1818), Oeklers, and Schucking; and of tragedies by Klinemann ("Ahasuerus", 1827) and Zedlitz (1844). Hans Christian Andersen made his "Ahasuerus" the Angel of Doubt, and was imitated by 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. 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 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 Dor's designs published in the preceding year, perhaps the most striking of Dor's imaginative works.

In England — besides the ballad given in Percy's "Reliques" and reprinted in 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 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).

The Wandering Jew in film

Related legends

There is a strong correspondence between the legend of the Wandering Jew and that of The Flying Dutchman, a fact noted by Heinrich Heine.

The captain of a ship named the Flying Dutchman swore in 1681 that he would not retreat in the face of a storm, but would continue his attempt to round the Cape of Good Hope even if it took until Judgment Day. The ship, legend goes, was thenceforth doomed to sail forever. The Flying Dutchman is usually spotted from afar, sometimes glowing with ghostly light. If she is hailed by another ship, her crew will often try to send messages to land, to people long since dead.

Another doomed wanderer is found in the Irish tale of Jack of the Lantern. Of course, 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.


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

External links

de:Ewiger Jude eo:Ahasvero pl:Żyd Wieczny Tułacz ru:Агасфер


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