I would think it is safe to say that anyone even faintly acquainted with the stories of the Christian religion would be familiar with the story of Judas Iscariot, even if they were a little vague on the details. There is another figure who appears in the story of the Passion and although they may be aware of the legend, it’s unlikely that the details are quite as familiar to most people. It is said that after Pontius Pilate had examined Jesus and found no fault with him, he sent him to be judged by the Jewish authorities and as Jesus was passing out of Pilate’s hall, one of the porters, a Jew called Cartaphilus, had struck him on the back with his fist and said,
“Go quicker Jesus, go quicker; why do you linger?”
Jesus looked back at him reproachfully and replied,
“I am going, and you will linger till I return.”
Cartaphilus has forever since roamed the earth, waiting for the Second Coming, cursed to live until the End of Days; he is known popularly as the Wandering Jew.
|A Particularly Angry Wandering Jew|
The story seems to be a slight variation of John 18:22,
“And when he had thus spoken, one of the officers which stood by struck Jesus with the palm of his hand, saying, Answerest thou the high priest so?”
The first record of the Wandering Jew is found in the Flores Historiarum (Flowers of History) where Roger of Wendover records that in 1228, an Armenian bishop visited England to see the relics of the saints and visit the shrines. He came to St Albans and, in conversation with the monks, he told them the story of Cartaphilus, with whom he had dined just before he had left for his pilgrimage to England.
|An early woodcut|
After the crucifixion, Cartaphilus had been baptised by Ananias, who also baptised the apostle Paul, and had taken the name Jospeh. He lived in Armenia and discoursed regularly with the theologians there, having the advantage of over a thousand years of study, reading and meditation. He lives until he is one hundred years old, when he becomes ill and falls into an ecstasy, from which he recovers and returns to the age at which he was first cursed, being about thirty years old.
|An early French woodcut|
He lived humbly and frugally, placing his hopes for salvation in that he had acted in ignorance and Jesus’ words,
“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
|How to annoy Jesus|
Just slightly later, Phillipe Mouskes, later Bishop of Tournai, in his Chronique Rimée (Rhymed Chronicle) (c.1242), tells the story of an unnamed man who, seeing Jesus carrying his cross to Calvary, calls to his friends to wait for him, as he wants to see the false prophet crucified, and Jesus turns to him and says,
“They will not wait for thee, but thou shalt wait for me.”
There is a passing reference that the Wandering Jew was in Bohemia in 1505, where he assisted a weaver named Kokot at the royal palace, but he does not reappear until 1547, when Paul von Eitzen, later bishop of Schleswig, records seeing a tattered man at a church service in Hamburg, who acted very piously and who, when questioned, said that he was Ahasuerus, a shoemaker from Jerusalem, who had known of Jesus before his trial, (this is the reason why fancy boots feature so prominently in early pictures of the Wandering Jew).
|Ahasuerus and his distinctive boots|
He thought that Jesus was merely another rabble-rouser and trouble maker, and when he heard that Jesus was to be crucified, he went home, knowing that his house lay on the route to Calvary.
|Ahasuerus mocks Jesus|
He stood on his doorstep and waited and as Jesus was passing, he paused and rested the cross against Ahasuerus’ wall. Eager for the applause of the crowd, Ahasuerus struck Jesus and told him to be on his way, and Jesus had replied,
“I will stand here and rest, but thou shalt move until the last day,”
and from that moment on, he had been unable to rest and had wandered across the earth, searching for release. Professors and historians questioned him, and his replies were those of an eyewitness to the events he described. He was calm and modest, ate little and drank less, and if anyone gave him any money, he immediately gave it away to the poor. He spoke fluent German at the time but when he reappeared in the Netherlands in 1575, he spoke equally good Spanish.
|Wandering in his boots|
This identical man was seen in various places over the years, always dressed in tattered rags and with shoulder-length hair, he appeared across Europe, aimlessly wandering and, some said, followed by thunderstorms – even into the nineteenth century, peasants in Brittany and Picardy would cross themselves and murmur
‘C’est le Juif-errant qui passe’
whenever a storm blew up. He was seen in Dantzig, Vienna and Moscow; in 1604 he was in Paris, in 1633 he was back in Hamburg, in 1640 at Brussels, in 1642 he was seen in Leipzig and in 1658 he was in England, (in Percy’s Reliques of ancient English Ballads, there is a ballad about him dating from about this time).
|A vaguely anti-Semitic woodcut|
He was questioned by professors from Cambridge and Oxford, and answered their questions satisfactorily; he spoke for several hours in Arabic and described the crucifixion and the resurrection, the burning of Rome by Nero and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem; he had met Mohamet and his father (he wasn’t impressed by them) and had been present at many of the turning points of history.
|A vaguely anti-Semitic Swedish woodcut (with the boots)|
Shortly afterwards, he departed for Denmark and was seen later in Sweden, and then he disappeared. There have been sporadic sighting of him since, and claims to be him have sometimes been made by individuals who have been exposed as imposters, but as far as we know, he may wander still.