The Eternal Life of the Wandering Jew

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During the Middle Ages, one of the most tenacious legends circulating through Europe was that of the Wandering Jew, Cartaphilus, originally employed as a porter by Pontius Pilate. According to the legend, after Pilate had delivered him to the Jews for crucifixion, Jesus was being dragged out of the judgment hall when he paused for a moment to rest. Seeing this, Cartaphilus cruelly struck him on the back with his hand and jeered, “Go quicker, Jesus, go quicker; why do you loiter?” In reply, Jesus looked back at the porter and said. “I am going, and you will wait till I return.”

Since that day, Cartaphilus has roamed the world unceasingly, unable to die until the Last Judgement. This stark tale was first documented in the book of the chronicles of the abbey at St Albans, England, which was copied and continued by Matthew Paris. He recorded that in AD 1228, the abbey was visited by a certain archbishop from Armenia, who told the monks that Cartaphilus had eated at his table and that they had often spoken together. Apparently, he was now known as Joseph, following his baptism by Ananias. A similar account of the Armenian archbishop’s testimony was penned in 1242 by Philip Mouskes, who later became Bishop of Tournay.

During the 16th century, reports of the Wandering Jew were numerous and widespread. In 1505, he reputedly assisted a weaver called Kokot to find a treasure that had been hidden in the royal palace in Bohemia 60 years earlier, during the Jew’s previous visit there. Not long afterwards he supposedly spoke with the Arab hero Fadhilah after the capture of the city of Elvan by the Arab. On that occasion, the Jew gave his name as Bassi Hadhret Issa.

During the winter of 1537, he was spied in a Hamburg church by a student called Paul von Eitzen, later to become Bishop of Schleswig. A tall man with long hair, despite the freezing weather the Jew was barefoot and dressed only in threadbare clothing, a description frequently given by eyewitnesses. Listening solemnly to the sermon, he sighed and beat his breast whenever the name of Jesus was mentioned. Afterwards Eitzen sought him out, learning that he now called himself Ahasuerus, and listening in awe as the Jew regaled him with extensive details of his life and those of the countless famous people encountered by him during his unending travels. Again, the Jew’s seemingly vast knowledge of history, as well as his ability to speak in many languages, was alluded to in numerous other eyewitness narratives too. Moreoever, he never laughed, refused all offers of money or gifts, and harshly rebuked anyone speaking of God or Jesus in a blasphemous manner.

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