The Legend of the Wandering Jew

By George Anderson, 1965

As Christ was carrying His cross to Golgotha, He stopped for a moment to rest outside the house of a shoemaker named Ahasuerus.  When Ahasuerus saw this, he jeered the Savior, asking Him why He was dallying.  Christ then looked at Ahasuerus and pronounced the curse:  “I will stand here and rest, but you must wander the Earth until I return.”  And so it was the Ahasuerus became the Wandering Jew—a man cursed to live for century after century, never knowing the release of death until Judgment Day.  He has no home on this Earth and no rest from his wandering.  Some say he seeks death but can’t find it, and some say he still rebels against Christ and the One who sent Him, but most say that he has repented and hopes for God’s mercy on the Last Day.  He spends his centuries of waiting in prayer and good deeds.  So, at least, goes the legend whose lifetime is now nearly half that attributed to its subject.  In this book, Anderson spends 400 pages cataloging and describing all the variations in the story in both folk tale and literature from its appearance in the 13th century to the 1960s.  I ended the book somewhat disappointed, because the Legend seems to have such great dramatic potential that it’s just waiting to be turned into a literary masterpiece, but like Ahasuerus, it’s been waiting a long time.  Many famous writers have tried their hands at it—including Goethe, Shelley, Hans Anderson, and Dumas, but their efforts didn’t really pay off.  In fact, the best treatments have usually been by lesser-known authors.  Anderson spends more than half of the book describing bad fiction.  This gets rather tedious for both reader and author (again, bizarrely appropriate for the subject), but the author’s frustrations can sometimes be amusing, such as when he describes reading David Hoffman’s 1700 page chronicle as a “penitential achievement”, or in his appropriate disgust with the quasi-pornographic retelling by Viereck and Eldridge (“partners in literary crime”), in which a Wandering Jew and a Wandering Jewess spend their millennia in the pursuit of sexual gratification.  More seriously, Anderson points out a fundamental weakness in the legend—that once the Jew commences his wandering, there aren’t any dramatic incidents left until Doomsday.  This is why many versions of the story devolve into disguised history and geography lessons.  To have a compelling story, an author needs to add things.

The story has endless variations.  Sometimes Ahasuerus is an old man; sometimes he remains forever young; sometimes he ages and then returns to youth.  In the English poetic drama The Immortal Jew by S.R. Lysaght, he lives, dies, and is reincarnated over and over again, but unlike the reincarnations the rest of us are imagined to go through, Ahasuerus is condemned to remember all his past lives.  When the Wandering Jew is the main character, his redemption is usually the main issue.  Very often, Ahasuerus is a secondary character in fiction, a sort of dues ex machina who comes out of nowhere and does good deeds:  reuniting separated lovers, and the like.

It seems that Anderson’s favorite dramatic adaptation of the legend is the 1833 French work Ahasverus by Edgar Quinet.  This version has several things going for it.  First, it works hard to capture a sense of vast stretches of time unfolding.  (The story goes from the creation of the world to mankind’s old age, to Judgment Day, and then to a time after the death of God Himself.)  Second, it introduces the character of Rachel, an angel expelled from heaven for her pity towards Ahasuerus.  They meet on Earth and fall in love, and she follows him through his eons of wandering.  According to Anderson, their love is portrayed quite well.  (Not having read the play, I can’t comment.)  Anderson gets to Quinet about half-way through the book.  Unless you’re a serious enthusiast about the legend, you might consider stopping after this point, because the masterpiece you’re waiting to hear about hasn’t been written yet, and the last hundred years of work on the legend hasn’t been too impressive.

7 Responses

  1. Could it be that the wandering jew represents the bloodline of Dinah, daughter of Rachel and Israel?

  2. Star9… 541-99-640-21-661… Saggitarius *12*10*19*71*

  3. Where in the bible those this story is

  4. Is the story really correct or is it just story told for moral lessons with no proof

  5. Of course it’s made up, but it’s an intriguing story, many centuries old, which I think has yet to be given its definitive artistic rendering.

  6. It is a “legend” interpreted from John 21:22, successfully novelized by Doctor Eugene Sue and General Lew Wallace. Viereck & Eldridge also wrote a brilliant autobiography of the characters. Salathiel by Croly is a bit of a disappointment. Walter M. Miller Jr used the wanderer to help give form to his Hugo science-fiction novel. Please read my scripts (on DVD) from eBay, with its gratuitous documentation from over thirty years or research and development. rdmanning@hotmail.com

  7. Thankyou. I am God’s Hebrew Israelites’s Naomi, young 50 year old daughter of God Almighty YA Elohim, Jesus Christ

    I shall be Revealed and Released in Jesus Name

    29.11.1966. It really is me

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