Question: "What is the legend of the Wandering Jew?"
Answer: The legend of the Wandering Jew is a cautionary tale that has been in circulation for centuries. Basically, the Wandering Jew is an immortal man who is doomed to travel from place to place in constant state of sorrow until the second coming of Christ as a punishment for his mistreatment of Christ in His passion. It is not a biblical story, as the Bible does not mention anyone, Jewish or otherwise, who is cursed in the same way that the Wandering Jew supposedly is.
Depending on the version of the story, the fanciful details concerning the Wandering Jew are slightly different. Most all of the versions emphasize his inability to die and his curse of restlessness: he travels the globe and can only stop to eat meals before moving on again.
One version, from the Middle Ages, identifies the Wandering Jew as a man named Cartaphilus, who taunted Jesus Christ as He was carrying His cross to Calvary. The story goes that, when this man saw Jesus passing by, he told Him to go faster and stop loitering, to which the Savior replied with something like, “I go, but thou shalt wait till I come.” Jesus’ words to Cartaphilus cursed him to roam the earth until the second coming.
In an Italian version of the story from the fourteenth century, the Wandering Jew’s name is John Buttadeus—Buttadeus being Latin for “strike God,” a reference to John’s supposed physical attack upon Jesus. Other versions also associate the Wandering Jew’s crime with physical violence: in 1228, a man claimed to have met a man in Armenia who reportedly had been Pontius Pilate’s doorkeeper and had struck Jesus on His way to Calvary.
In other versions of the tale, the crime of the Wandering Jew was to simply withhold aid from the suffering Christ. In the sixteenth century, a German bishop claimed to have met a tall, barefoot, long-haired man in Hamburg. The man said his name was Ahasuerus and that he was a Jewish shoemaker who had refused to help the Lord in His hour of need. Later, this same Ahasuerus was supposedly spotted in Madrid, Spain, where he evinced a fluency in every language.
There are many other variations of the myth of the Wandering Jew, and they have been told in many cultures around the world. In some iterations, the Wandering Jew converts to Christianity and acts as an evangelist everywhere he goes. In others, he is simply cursed in his misery. Various versions give him various names: Melmoth, Matathias, Malchus, Isaac Laquedem (French), Juan Espera a Dios (Spanish for “John waits for God”), and Jerusalemin suutari (Finnish for “Shoemaker of Jerusalem”). In all versions, the theme is that cursing Christ brings a curse.
The curse of the Wandering Jew bears some similarities to the curse God placed upon Cain after his murder of Abel. Besides decreeing that Cain would no longer be able to till the ground to produce crops, God said, “You will be a restless wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:14). Millennia-long wandering is not mentioned as part of Cain’s punishment, and immortality is not implied, although God does put a mark on him so that no one would kill him (Genesis 4:15).
Some see the Wandering Jew legend as a metaphor for the plight of the Jewish people at large: under Moses, the Jews wandered for forty years in the wilderness; and forty years after rejecting Jesus as the Messiah, the Jews lost their temple and their nation and were forced to disperse to various places around the world. Some anti-Semitic groups have used the concept of the Wandering Jew to propagandize, and the term Wandering Jew, used as an epithet, is considered offensive.
Again, the legend of the Wandering Jew has no basis in the Bible. It is a fable that has borrowed some elements from the Bible, including a mention of Jesus, but it is a fictional story. During His trial and crucifixion, Jesus was indeed mocked; on the road to Calvary, however, we have no record of anyone mistreating Him. Luke 23:27 records that women from Jerusalem bewailed and cried for Him. In His response, Jesus never spoke a curse on anyone. In all He said, He was an example of grace and truth. When He was attacked and humiliated by the Roman soldiers, He didn’t retaliate (Matthew 27:27–31). When false accusers lied against Him, “Jesus remained silent and gave no answer” (Mark 14:61). Any supposed interaction with a man who mocked Him, with Jesus cursing him, is simply a myth.