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Wandering Jew

by Jared Shurin
The Wandering Jew, also known as Ahasverus or Buttadaeus, was given the curse of immortality by Jesus Christ. As Christ was carrying his heavy cross from Pilate's hall and towards his place of crucifixion, Ahasverus, then a porter in Pilate's service, struck Christ, and mocked him for walking so slowly. Christ, in turn, told the insolent porter to wait for his return, that is, until the Second Coming. In some versions of the tale, Ahasverus is an officer of the Sanhedrim (an order of Jewish priests); in others, he is merely a shoemaker with a quick temper.

Whatever his origins, all version of his tale agree that the Wandering Jew soon repented of his sins and was baptized Catholic. He grows old in the normal fashion until reaching one hundred whereupon he sheds his skin and rejuvenates to the age of thirty. The Middle Ages abound with sightings of the Wandering Jew, generally telling his story in turn for meager food and lodging, sometimes even undergoing tests of authenticity by local professors and academic figures. Encounters with the Wandering Jew occurred all throughout Europe - during the Middle Ages, there were sightings in Armenia, Poland, Moscow, and virtually every Western European city including London.

By the 19th century, sightings of the Wandering Jew were largely attributed to imposters and madmen. In the 1840's, he reappeared in New England, although this time only in literary form, in Nathaniel Hawthorne's A Virtuoso's Collection and A Select Party (both stories originally published in magazines but later collected in Mosses from an Old Manse, 1846). In both stories, Hawthorne departs from the traditional depiction of the Wandering Jew as a world-weary penitent and instead outlines more of a cynical, earthy figure. At the same time, Gustave Dore created a series of elegent woodcuts, The Legend of the Wandering Jew (1856), probably the finest portrayal of the traditional myth.

Article details:

  • Also known as:
    Walking Jew

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