by Shelley Neese
“The Wandering Jew”— a popular figure in medieval Christian folklore—walks the earth alone until Judgment Day, cursed for offending Jesus on his way to the cross. In some variants of the story, he is a Jewish shoemaker named Cartaphilus, who, when Jesus stopped to rest on the road to Calvary, taunted him with “Go on quicker, Jesus! Go on quicker!” To which Jesus answered, “I shall stand and rest, but thou shalt go till the last day.” An earlier account says the Wandering Jew is a Roman gate-keeper named Cartaphilus who struck Jesus as he went out the door and mocked, “Go quicker, Jesus; why do you loiter?” Jesus looked back on him with a “severe countenance” saying, “I am going, and you shall wait forever till I return.”
The Wandering Jew caught the imaginations of Christians for centuries as the ultimate symbol of God’s rejection of the Jewish people. Condemned to homelessness and humiliation, he personified the Jewish nation, thought responsible for the Crucifixion. As the Wandering Jew lost hope of rest in death, early Christian theologians similarly taught that descendants of Abraham lost all rights to the covenants and blessings for having denied Jesus. St. Augustine, an early church father, wrote, “The Jew can never understand the Scriptures and forever will bear the guilt for the death of Jesus.” According to this model, the destruction of the second temple and the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt seemed only to confirm divine retribution for Jewish misdeeds.
The Nazis modernized the Wandering Jew image into a propaganda tool. Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s Minister of Propaganda, released a film in 1940 titled Der ewige Jude (“Eternal Jew”). The film, done in documentary style, aimed to portray Jews as wandering parasites, a disgusting and inferior race. The opening scene shows a rat pack coming up from a sewer juxtaposed with a crowd of Jews on a busy Polish street.
Fast forward to the twentieth century, to the founding of the State of Israel. With its creation came a new symbol of Jewish existence. The Wandering Jew, supposedly condemned to eternal exile, came back to the very land of his covenant.
The State of Israel posed an urgent dilemma to the anti-Semitic impulse of some Christian thinking. According to the rejection theory of Jewish exile, the land rights and promises to the Hebrew people were no longer applicable to the Jews. But, how does one explain the miraculous rebirth of the Jewish state?
By the 1800s, many Christians had broken free from the shackles of anti-Semitic thinking. With the rise of Evangelicalism, many reappraised the Church’s mistaken theology towards Jews. Evangelicals began reading Scripture literally, rather than spiritualizing the Hebraic promises and prophecies. With this theological shift, a new understanding of covenant has dawned.
The culture of hate and the gross misunderstanding of Scripture, represented by the tale of Jewish rejection, almost destroyed the Christian Church. The horrors of the Holocaust allowed Christians to see the fruit of a theology that deemed Jews irrelevant at best. Now the survival of the Jewish people after nearly 2,000 years of exile could be appreciated as a true miracle—not something offensive to Christianity but rather a miracle that reaffirms our faith in God.
While the stateless Jew (i.e. the Wandering Jew) bore testimony to God’s supposed rejection, the creation of the Jewish state gave proof of God’s ultimate faithfulness—two symbols based on two very different forms of Christian insight. One served to divorce Judaism from Christianity, and the other brings Jews and Christians together on a common platform. One served as a springboard to foster hate and murder by those Christians with misguided motives or carnal hearts (an estimated six million Jews died from Christian persecution in the Middle Ages). The other allied Christians with their Jewish brothers in defense of an embattled Israel. For all who believe in the God of Abraham, the miracle of Israel should be a source of inspiration. And the homecoming of the proverbial “Wandering Jew” is cause for celebration.