Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Martin Gardner-The Wandering Jew and the Second Coming

When it comes to the bible and biblical interpretation a large portion of scripture is fairly flexible and can be reinterpreted to fit the social needs and beliefs at any given time. But there are those parts of the bible that are fairly black and white in their meaning and given the passage of time they have clearly exposed themselves as errors both with facts and moral values.

One example is when Jesus foretold that his return would occur within the lifetime of some of those people who were listening to him speak. That of course did not happen so Christians have had to come up with ways to explain this obvious error. This is an essay written by Martin Gardner concerning the legend of the wandering Jew. This legend developed in an attempt to address this mistake of Jesus’ and is a wonderful example of how far people are willing to go to maintain their beliefs inspite of any and all evidence to the contrary, in particular their belief in the inerrancy of scripture and infallibility of Jesus

The Wandering Jew and the Second Coming by Martin Gardner

The legend of a wandering Jew, unable to die until the Second Coming, is surely the strangest of all myths intended to combat the notion that Jesus was mistaken when he said he would return within the lifetime of someone then living. I have summarized its sad, colorful history in an essay that appeared in Free Inquiry (Summer 1995)

As the year 2000 approaches, it would not surprise me to see a picture of the Wandering Jew on the front page of one of the supermarket tabloids. Some intrepid photographer will spot him trudging a dusty road, with his sturdy walking stick and long white beard, and perhaps obtain an interview about his sufferings over the past two millennia

“For the son of man shall come in the glory of his Father, with his angels, and then he shall reward every man according to his works. Verily I say unto you. There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death till they see the Son of man coming his kingdom.” Matthew -28

The statement of Jesus quoted above from Matthew, and repeated in similar words by Mark (, ) and Luke (-27) is for Bible fundamentalists one of the most troublesome of all New Testament passages.

It is possible, of course, that Jesus never spoke those sentences, but all scholars agree that the first-century Christians expected the Second Coming in their lifetimes. In Matthew 24, after describing dramatic signs of his imminent return, such as the falling of stars and the darkening of the moon and sun, Jesus added: “Verily I say unto you. This generation shall not pass until all these things be fulfilled.”

Until about 1933 Seventh-Day Adventists had a clever way of rationalizing this prophecy. They argued that a spectacular meteor shower of 1833 was the falling of the stars, and that there was a mysterious darkening of sun and moon in the United States in 1870. Jesus meant that a future generation witnessing these celestial events would be the one to experience his Second Coming.

For almost a hundred years Adventist preachers and writers of books assured the world that Jesus would return within the lifetimes of some who had seen the great meteor shower of 1833. After 1933 passed, the church gradually abandoned this interpretation of Christ’s words. Few of today’s faithful are even aware that their church once trumpeted such a view. Although Adventists still believe Jesus will return very soon, they no longer set conditions for an approximate date.

How do they explain the statements of Jesus quoted in the epigraph? Following the lead of Saint Augustine and other early Christian commentators, they take the promise to refer to Christ’s Transfiguration. Ellen White, the prophetess who with her husband founded Seventh-day Adventism, said it this way in her life of Christ, The Desire of Ages: “The Savior’s promise to the disciples was now fulfilled. Upon the mount the future kingdom of glory was represented in miniature…”  

Hundreds of Adventist sects since the time of Jesus, starting with the Montanists of the second century, have all interpreted Christ’s prophetic statements about his return to refer to their generation. Apocalyptic excitement surged as the year 1000 approached. Similar excitement is now gathering momentum as the year 2000 draws near. Expectation of the Second Coming is not confined to Adventist sects. Fundamentalists in mainstream Protestant denominations are increasingly stressing the imminence of Jesus’ return. Baptist Billy Graham, for example. Regularly warns of the approaching battle of Armageddon and the appearance of the Anti-Christ. He likes to emphasize the Bible’s assertion that the Second Coming will occur after the gospel is preached to all the nations. This could not take place, Graham insists, until the rise of radio and television.

Preacher Jerry Falwell is so convinced that he will soon be raptured—caught up in the air to meet the return of Jesus—that he once said he has no plans for a burial plot. Austin Miles, who once worked for Pat Robertson, reveals in his book Don’t Call Me Brother (1989) that Pat once seriously considered plans to televise the Lord’s appearance in the skies! Today’s top native drumbeater for a soon Second Coming is Hal Lindsey. His many books on the topic, starting with The Late Great Planet Earth, have sold by the millions.

For the past two thousand years individuals and sects have been setting dates for the Second Coming. When the Lord fails to show, there is often no recognition of total failure. Instead, errors are found in the calculations and new dates set. In New Harmony, Indiana, an Adventist sect called the Rappites was established by George Rapp. When he became ill he said that were he not absolutely certain the Lord intended him and his flock to witness the return of Jesus, he would think this was his last hour. So saying, he died.

The Catholic Church, following Augustine, long ago moved the Second Coming far into the future at some unspecified date. Liberal Protestants have tended to take the Second Coming as little more than a metaphor for the gradual establishment of peace and justice on earth. Julia Ward Howe, a Unitarian minister, had this interpretation in mind when she began her famous Battle Hymn of the Republic with “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…” Protestant fundamentalists, on the other hand, believe that Jesus described actual historical events that would precede his literal return to earth to banish Satan and judge the quick and the dead. They also find it unthinkable that the Lord could have blundered about the time of his Second Coming.

The difficulty in interpreting Christ’s statement about some of his listeners not tasting of death until he returned is that he described the event in exactly the same phrases he used in Matthew 24. He clearly was not there referring to his transfiguration, or perhaps (as another “out” has it) to the fact that his kingdom would soon be established by the formation of the early church. Assuming that Jesus meant exactly what he said, and that he was not mistaken, how can his promise be unambiguously justified?

During the Middle Ages several wonderful legends arose to preserve the accuracy of Christ’s prophecies. Some were based on John 21. When Jesus said to Peter “Follow me,” Peter noticed John walking behind him and asked, “Lord, what shall this man do?” The Lord’s enigmatic answer was, “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?”

We are told that this led to a rumor that John would not die. However, the writer of the fourth gospel adds: “Yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but if I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?” Theologians in the Middle Ages speculated that perhaps John did not die. He was either wandering about the earth, or perhaps he ascended bodily into heaven. A more popular legend was that John had been buried in a state of suspended animation, his heart faintly throbbing. To remain in an unknown grave until Jesus returns.

These speculations about John rapidly faded as a new and more powerful legend slowly took shape. Perhaps Jesus was not referring to John when he said he could ask someone to tarry, but to someone else. This would also explain the remarks quoted in the epigraph. Someone not mentioned in the gospels, alive in Jesus’s day, was somehow cursed to remain alive for centuries until judgment day, wandering over the earth and longing for death.

Who was this Wandering Jew? Some said it was Malchus, whose ear Peter sliced off. Others thought it might be the impenitent thief who was crucified beside Jesus. Maybe it was Pilate, or one of Pilate’s servants. The version that became dominant identified the Wandering Jew as a shopkeeper—his name varied—who watched Jesus go by his doorstep, staggering under the weight of the cross he carried. Seeing how slowly and painfully the Lord walked, the man struck Jesus on the back, urging him to go faster. “I go,” Jesus replied, “but you will tarry until I return.”

As punishment for his rudeness, the shopkeeper’s doom is to wander the earth, longing desperately to die but unable to do so. In some versions of the legend, he stays the same age. In others, he repeatedly reaches old age only to be restored over and over again to his youth. The legend seems to have first been recorded in England in the thirteenth century before it rapidly spread throughout Europe. It received an enormous boost in the early seventeenth century when a pamphlet appeared in Germany about a Jewish shoemaker named Ahasuerus who claimed to be the Wanderer. The pamphlet was endlessly reprinted in Germany and translated into other languages. The result was a mania comparable to today’s obsessions with UFO’s, Abominable Snowmen, and Elvis Presley. Scores of persons claiming to be the Wandering Jew turned up in cities all over England and Europe during the next two centuries. In the U.S. as late as 1868 a Wandering Jew popped up in Salt Lake City, home of the Mormon Adventist sect. It is impossible now to decide in individual cases whether these were rumors, hoaxes by imposters, or cases of self-deceived psychotics.

The Wandering Jew became a favorite topic for hundreds of poems, novels, and plays, especially in Germany where such works continue to proliferate to this day. Even Goethe intended to write an epic about the Wanderer, but only finished a few fragments. It is not hard to understand how anti-Semites in Germany and elsewhere would see the cobbler as representing all of Israel, its people under God’s condemnation for having rejected his Son as their Messiah.

Gustave Dore produced twelve remarkable woodcuts depicting episodes in the Wanderer’s life. They were first published in Paris in 1856 to accompany a poem by Pierre Dupont. English editions followed with translations of the verse.

By far the best known novel about the Wanderer is Eugene Sue’s French work Le Juif Errant (The Wandering Jew), first serialized in Paris in 1844-1845 and published in ten volumes. George Croly’s three-volume Salathiel (1827), later retitled Tarry Thou Till I Come, was an enourmously popular earlier novel. (In Don Juan, Canto 11, Stanza 57, Byron calls the author Reverend Roley-Poley.) In Lew Wallace’s Prince of India (1893), the Wanderer is a wealthy Oriental potentate.

George Macdonald’s Thomas Wingfold, Curate (1876) introduces the Wandering Jew as an Anglican minister. Having witnessed the Crucifixion, and in constant agony over his sin, Wingfold is powerless to overcome a strange compulsion. Whenever he passes a roadside cross, or even a cross on top of a church, he has an irresistible impulse to climb on the cross, warp his arms and legs around it, and cling there until he drops to the ground unconscious! He falls in love, but realizing that his beloved will age and die while he remains young, he tries to kill himself by walking into an active volcano. His beloved follows, and is incinerated by the molten lava. There is a surprisingly happy ending. Jesus appears, forgives the Wanderer, and leads him off to Paradise to reunite with the woman who died for him. The novel is not among the best of this Scottish writer’s many admired fantasies.

My First Two Thousand Years, by George Sylvester Viereck and Paul Eldridge (1928) purports to be the erotic autobiography of the Wandering Jew. The same two authors, in 1930, wrote Salome, the Wandering Jewess, an equally erotic novel covering her two thousand years of lovemaking. The most recent novel about the Wanderer is by German ex-Communist Stefan Heym, a pseudonym for Hellmuth Flieg. In his The Wandering Jew, published in West Germany in 1981 and in a U.S. edition three years later, the Wanderer is a hunchback who tramps the roads with Lucifer as his companion. The fantasy ends with the Second Coming, Armageddon, and the Wanderer’s forgiveness.

Sue’s famous novel is worth a quick further comment. The Wanderer is Ahasuerus, a cobbler. His sister Herodias, the wife of King Herod, becomes the Wandering Jewess. The siblings are minor characters in a complex plot. Ahasuerus is tall, with a single black eyebrow stretching over both eyes like a Mark of Cain. Seven nails on the soles of his iron boots produce crosses when he walks across snow. Wherever he goes an outbreak of cholera follows. Eventually the two siblings are pardoned and allowed “the happiness of eternal sleep.” Sue was a French socialist. His Wanderer is a symbol of exploited labor, Herodias a symbol of exploited women. Indeed, the novel is an angry blast at Catholicism, capitalism, and greed.

The Wandering Jew appears in several recent science fiction novels, notable Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), and Wilson Tucker’s The Planet King (1959) where he becomes the last man alive on earth. At least two movies have dealt with the legend, the most recent a 1948 Italian film starring Vittorio Gassman.

Rafts of poems by British and U.S. authors have retold the legend. The American John Saxe, best known for his verse about the blind men and the elephant, wrote a seventeen-stanza poem about the Wanderer. British poet Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton’s forgettable “Undying One” runs to more than a hundred pages. Oliver Herford, an American writer of light verse, in “Overheard in a Garden” turns the Wanderer into a traveling salesman peddling a book about himself. “The Wandering Jew” (1920) by Edwin Arlington Robinson, is surely the best of such poems by an American writer.

Charles Timothy Brooks (1813-1883) was a New England Unitarian minister as well as a prolific versifier and translator of Goethe and other German poets. His “Wandering Jew,” based on a German poem whose author I do not know, was reprinted in dozens of pre-1900 American anthologies.

The Wandering Jew once said to me,
I passed through a city in the cool of the year;
A man in the grader plucked fruit from a tree.
I asked: "How long has the city been here?"
And he answered me, as he plucked away -
"It always stood where it stands to-day,
And here it will stand forever and aye."
Five hundred years rolled by, and then
I traveled the self-same road again.

No trace of the city there I found:
A shepherd sat blowing his pipe alone;
His flock went quietly nibbling round.
I asked: "How long has the city been gone?"
And he answered me, and he piped away -
"The new ones bloom and the old decay,
This is my pasture ground for aye."
Five hundred years rolled by, and then
I traveled the self-same road again.

And I came to the sea, and the waves did roar,
And a fisherman threw his net out clear,
And when heavy laden he dragged it ashore.
I asked "How long has the sea been here?"
And he laughed, and he said, and he laugher away -
"As long as you billows have tossed their spray
They've fished and they've fished in this self-same bay."
Five hundred years rolled by, and then
I traveled the self-same road again.

And I came to the forest, vast and free,
And a woodman stood in the thicket near -
His axe he laid at the foot of a tree.
I asked, "How long have the woods been here?"
And he answered "These woods are a covert for aye;
My ancestors dwelt here alway,
And the trees have been here since creation's day."
Five hundred years rolled by, and then
I traveled the self-same road again.

And I found there a city, and far and near
Resounded the hum of toil and glee,
and I asked, "How long has the city been here?
and where is the pipe, and the woods and the sea?"
And they answered me, as they went their way,
"Things always have stood as they stand to-day,
And so they will stand forever and aye."
I'll wait five hundred years, and then
I'll travel the self-same road again.

In England, Shelly was the most famous poet to become fascinated by the legend. In his lengthy poem “The Wandering Jew,” written or partly written when he was seventeen, the Wanderer is called Paulo. A fiery cross on his forehead is kept concealed under a cloth band. In the third Canto, after sixteen centuries of wandering, Paulo recounts the origin of his suffering to Rosa, a woman he loves:

 How can I paint that dreadful day , 
That time of terror and dismay, 
When, for our sins, a Saviour died, 
And the meek Lamb was crucified! 
As dread that day, when borne along 
To slaughter by the insulting throng, 
Infuriate for Deicide, 
I mocked our Saviour, and I cried, 
Go, go, ‘Ah! I will go,’ said he, 
‘Where scenes of endless bliss invite; 
To the blest regions of the light 
I go, but thou shalt here remain— 
Thou diest not till I come again’

The Wandering Jew is also featured in Shelley’s short poem “The Wandering Jew’s Soliloquy,” and in two much longer works, “Hellas” and “Queen Mab.” In “Queen Mab,” as a ghost whose body casts no shadow, Ahasuerus bitterly denounces God as an evil tyrant. In a lengthy note about this Shelley quotes from a fragment of a German work “whose title I have vainly endeavored to discover. I picked it up, dirty and torn, some years ago…”

In this fragment the Wanderer describes his endless efforts to kill himself. He tries vainly to drown. He leaps into an erupting Mount Etna where he suffers intense heat for ten months before the volcano belches him out. Forest fires fail to consume him. He tries to get killed in wars but arrows, spears, clubs, swords, bullets, mines, and trampling elephants have no effect on him.


The Worrywart

The simple fact is that Jesus, according to the Gospel writers, made some clear prophecies about himself, which failed to come true and so Christians have been left scrambling to figure out a way to fix Jesus’ error. I enjoy this legend because it demonstrates that people throughout history have understood the problem presented by Jesus’ clear mistake and they have sought to fix it. But the way Christians in the Middle Ages into the modern period chose to fix it, through the story of the wandering Jew, is a way that most Christians today would reject. Rather they would offer new interpretations to explain what Jesus “actually” meant all the while refusing to just acknowledge the simplest and most obvious answer; Jesus was wrong. And what I find funny about this is that their new interpretations usually require a far more complex twisting of Jesus’ words then the legend of the wandering Jew, which at least accepted Jesus’ words to be as clear and straightforward as they were. So while most people can now see this legend for what it is, a legend when they then examine the issue for which the legend was meant to address, Jesus’ prophecy, they once again become blind to the obvious truth; he got it wrong. Truly, few things show the fallibility of humanity as greatly as their belief in the infallibility of the divine.  

1 comment:

  1. FYI, while the story of the Wandering Jew is told in George Macdonald’s 'Thomas Wingfold, Curate', it is actually a story told to Wingfold in the book, it's not about Wingfold himself.