on science, literature, and religion


Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2000 Martin Gardner. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1-57392-852-6

Chapter One


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 in his kingdom.

Matthew 16: 27, 28

The statement of Jesus quoted above from Matthew, and repeated in similar words by Mark (8:38, 9:1) and Luke (9:26, 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 Jesus' 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 Jesus, 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 Jesus' 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's return. Baptist Billy Graham, for example, regularly warns of the approaching battle of Armageddon and the appearance of the Antichrist. He likes to emphasize the Bible's assertion that the Second Coming will occur after the gospel is preached to all 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 Lindsay. 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 Jesus' 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?

    Emily Dickinson, in one of her poems, said it this way:

I say to you, said Jesus—
That there be standing here—
A Sort, that shall not taste of Death—
If Jesus was sincere—

    During the Middle Ages several wonderful legends arose to preserve the accuracy of Jesus' 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 this 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' 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 manias for seeing UFOs, 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 United States 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 impostors, 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 he 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 Doré 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 1844-45 and published in ten volumes. George Croly's three-volume Salathiel (1927, later retitled Tarry Thou Till I Come), was an enormously 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 irresistable impulse to climb on the cross, wrap 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, but 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 excommunist 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, notably Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), 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.

    In England, Shelley 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. He attempts to conceal a fiery cross on his forehead 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 Savior, 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 executioner's hand could not strangle me ... nor would the hungry lion in the circus devour me." Snakes and dragons are powerless to harm him. He calls Nero a "bloodhound" to his face, but the tyrant's tortures cannot kill him.

Ha! not to be able to die—not to be able to die—not to be
permitted to rest after the toils of life—to be doomed to
be imprisoned forever in the clay-formed dungeon—to be
forever clogged with this worthless body, its load of diseases
and infirmities—to be condemned to hold for millenniums
that yawning monster Sameness, and Time,
that hungry hyena, ever bearing children and ever
devouring again her offspring! Ha! not to be permitted to
die! Awful avenger in heaven, hast thou in thine army of
wrath a punishment more dreadful? then let it thunder
upon me; command a hurricane to sweep me down to the
foot of Carmel that I there may lie extended; may pant,
and writhe, and die!

    Scholarly histories of the legend have been published in Germany and elsewhere. In English, Moncure Daniel Conway's The Wandering Jew (1881) has become a basic reference. See also his article on the Wanderer in The Encyclopaedia Britannica's ninth edition. Another valuable account is given by Sabine-Baring Gould in his Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (second edition, 1867).

    The definitive modern history is George K. Anderson's The Legend of the Wandering Jew, published by Brown University Press in 1965. A professor of English at Brown, Anderson made good use of the university's massive collection of literature about the Wanderer. His book's 489 pages contain excellent summaries of European poems, plays, and novels not touched upon here, as well as detailed accounts of the many claimants. The book may tell you more than you care to know about this sad attempt of Christians to avoid admitting that the Galilean carpenter turned preacher did indeed believe he would soon return to Earth in glory, but was mistaken.


In Italy the legend of the Wandering Jew took a charming and completely different form. Befana was sweeping her house when the three Wise Men rode by and invited her to go with them to Bethlehem. Befana said she was much too busy. Later regretting her decision, she began wandering about the world under a terrible curse that does not allow her to die. Each year on the eve of Twelfth Night (January 5), a day that commemorates the visit of the Magi, Befana slides down the chimney on her broom to fill shoes and stockings with candy and small toys. She always peers into the faces of the sleeping children, hoping to see the infant Jesus.

    Befana's story is told in the following doggerel. I found it in The Peerless Speaker (1900) where it is credited to Louise V. Boyd.

"Come forth, come forth, Beffana!"
She hears her neighbors say,
"Come, up the road to Bethlehem
The Wise Men pass today!"

So busy was Beffana
She scarcely turned her head;
Here was the waiting linen,
The waiting scarlet thread.

Again they cried, "Beffana,
It is a glorious sight,
Three Kings together journey
In crowns and garments bright!"

Her people's skillful daughters
As yet she had excelled.
Beffana saw the spindle,
Her hand the distaff held;

Her husband's words must praise her,
Her children's voices bless;
She eateth in her household
No bread of idleness.

So she made haste to answer,
"My house is all my care;
No time have I for strangers
Toward Bethlehem that fare!

"Ere yet the daytime cometh
I give my household meat:
Mine is the best-clad husband
That hath an elder's seat.

"And merchants know my girdles
And my woven tapestry,
The glory of my purple
And silk most fair to see!"

But now her kinsmen shouted,
"You know not what you miss!
There may be many pageants,
Yet none be like to this!

`"Men say the three Kings journey
A wondrous thing to see,
A babe born of a Virgin
Foretold by prophecy.

"Oh! come: behold, Beffana!
For speech may never say
The splendor on their faces,
The Kings that ride this way!"

Beffana still kept busy,
But lightly answered then:
"I will look out upon them
As they come back again!"

But all her friends and kinsmen,
In wondering delight,
Gazed till the Kings so gently
Had journeyed out of sight.

That eve Beffana's husband
Had sorrow in his gaze,
When of her work she told him,
Anticipating praise.

He did not quite upbraid her,
But out of ancient lore
He questioned, "Who hath profit
In laboring evermore?"

And spake of times for mourning
And times to laugh and sing;
Of times to keep or scatter,
Of times for everything.

And, sad, Beffana answered:
"My lord is right, but then
I surely will behold them
As they come back again."

Alas! alas! Beffana
Looked out from day to day,
They came no more; God warned them
To go another way.

And she grew very weary
Who had so much to do,
And never came the vision
That might her strength renew.

Beffana dieth never,
This earth is still her home;
Beffana looketh ever
For those who never come.

    Many old speaker anthologies contain the following sad poem about the Wandering Jew, translated from the German by Charles Timothy Brooks, a nineteenth-century Unitarian minister, poet, and translator.

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

No trace of a 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 travelled the self-same road again.

And I came to a 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 laughed away:
"As long as yon billows have tossed their spray,
They've fished and they've fished in the self-same way."
Five hundred years rolled by, and then
I travelled the self-same road again.

And I came to a 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, "The 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 travelled 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 wood, and the sea?"
And they answered me, and they went their way,
"Things always have stood as they stand today,
And so they will stand for ever and aye."
I'll wait five hundred years, and then
I'll travel the self-same road again.