The Wandering Jew is a mythical immortal man whose legend began to spread in Europe in the 13th century.
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.
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, while sometimes he is the doorman at the estate of Pontius Pilate.
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“.
A belief that the disciple whom Jesus loved would not die was 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
Another passage in the Gospel of John speaks about a guard of the high priest who slaps Jesus (John 18:19-23). Earlier, the Gospel of John talks about Simon Peter striking the ear from Malchus, a servant of the high priest (John 18:10).
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.”
A late 6th and an early 7th-century monk named Johannes Moschos records an important version of a Malchean figure. In his Leimonarion, Moschos recounts meeting a monk named Isidor who had purportedly met a Malchus-type of a figure who struck Christ and is therefore punished to wander in eternal suffering and lament:
I saw an Ethiopian, clad in rags, who said to me, “You and I are condemned to the same punishment.” I said to him, “Who are you?” And the Ethiopian who had appeared to me replied, “I am he who struck on the cheek the creator of the universe, our Lord Jesus Christ, at the time of the Passion. That is why,” said Isidor, “I cannot stop weeping.”
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 Odin 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.”
Most likely drawing on centuries of unwritten folklore, legendry, and oral tradition brought to the West as a product of the Crusades, a Latin chronicle from Bologna, Ignoti Monachi Cisterciensis S. Mariae de Ferraria Chronica et Ryccardi de Sancto Germano Chronica priora, contains the first written articulation of the Wandering Jew.
In the entry for the year 1223, the chronicle describes the report of a group of pilgrims who meet “a certain Jew in Armenia” (quendam Iudaeum) who scolded Jesus on his way to be crucified and is therefore doomed to live until the Second Coming. Every hundred years the Jew returns to the age of 30.
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 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.
There were claims of sightings of the Wandering Jew throughout Europe, since at least 1542 in Hamburg up to 1868 in Harts Corners, New Jersey. Joseph Jacobs, writing in the 11th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (1911), 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.