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Pontius Pilate's Gatekeeper

The universe is made of stories, not of atoms. — Muriel Rukeyser, “The Speed of Darkness”


According to legend, a bishop from Armenia stopped off at St. Albans abbey in Hertfordshire while on a pilgrimage to England in 1228 CE. The monks asked him if he were acquainted with one Joseph of Arimathea, the wealthy disciple who had arranged for Jesus’ burial after his crucifixion. Was it true that he was still alive? The bishop was able to confirm that he knew the man, whom he said had originally gone by the name of Cartaphilus. He had been the gatekeeper of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor in Jerusalem. Cartaphilus was later baptized as Joseph and spent his unending days proselytizing and leading the life of a hermit.

How could Cartaphilus still be alive after nearly 12 centuries? According to one version of the story, Pilate’s gatekeeper had struck Jesus when he stopped to rest while carrying the cross on which he would be crucified. "Go on quicker, Jesus,” Cataphilus snarled. “Go on quicker! Why dost Thou loiter?” Jesus then supposedly gave him a stern look and told him, "I shall stand and rest, but thou shalt go on till the last day." Thereafter, Cartaphilus was condemned to wander the earth until Christ’s return. He became known as the Wandering Jew, even though he had supposedly converted to Christianity.

How is it that a Roman soldier attached to Pontius Pilate’s garrison in Jerusalem could be reconstituted as the Wandering Jew? And what possible connection could he have to Joseph of Arimathea, a follower of Jesus and one of the good guys in the gospel narratives? Such is the stuff of legend. Cartaphilus, a.k.a. Joseph, has gone by many names in many different countries and, for all we know, may still be wandering the earth, at least in the popular imagination.

The legend of Cartaphilus might fall under the heading of midrash — the Christian equivalent of tales once told by rabbis to elaborate on sacred texts or to fill gaps in the biblical narratives. Midrash are not normally associated with Christianity, but it can be argued that some of the gospel narratives are themselves midrash. An example might be the gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke, which contain stories of Christ’s birth that are clearly elaborations of the spare narrative in St. Mark. A dozen or more non-canonical gospels circulated among Christian communities during the first few centuries of the church. Many of them elaborated freely on the basic narrative of Christ’s life, fleshing out characters and describing incidents that are not included in the New Testament canon.

The departure point for the Wandering Jew legend is an incident in which the gatekeeper Cartaphilus strikes Jesus to hurry him along to his crucifixion. No such incident is found in any of the canonical gospels. Nor is it remotely consistent with Jesus’ character that he would condemn anyone to wander the earth until his return. After all, Jesus had refused to allow his disciples to defend him when soldiers came to arrest him. And he prayed for those who put him to death, even while dying on the cross, crying out, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Why would Jesus forgive those who crucified him but not one who struck him along the way? The entire premise of the Wandering Jew legend is highly implausible — yet it makes for a good story.

It is useful to remember when considering such tales — indeed, with the gospels themselves — that we are in the realm of storytelling here. Broadly speaking, a story addresses one of two questions — or ideally both: where do we come from and what happens next? These questions were made possible by the rapid enlargement of the prefrontal lobes of the human brain some 300,000 years ago. This enabled us to engage in “counterfactual thinking” – to imagine things beyond the immediate question of where our next meal is coming from.

It's anyone's guess whether stories arose because we now had the language to tell them or, as author Reynolds Price has suggested, we developed language because we had stories to tell. Nomadic tribes that wandered over wide areas had an obvious need to preserve information on where water and hunting grounds were to be found. They also told stories about the origins of their tribe and the origins of the world, often highly fanciful. These were passed down from one generation to the next by word of mouth. They were eventually preserved in written narratives, starting about 5,000 years ago.

The biblical creation story found in the first chapter of Genesis was probably the work of a priestly author or editor around the time of the Jewish exile in Babylon in the sixth century BCE. It and other stories in the Old Testament were based on oral legends that had been passed on for centuries before anything was written down. To insist on the factual accuracy of stories that were never intended as historical or scientific accounts seems beside the point.

Likewise, the New Testament gospels were all written 40 or more years after the events they describe, based on stories circulating among the early Christian communities about Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings. Although two of the gospels are attributed to Jesus’ disciples, biblical scholars doubt that any of the gospels or epistles in the New Testament were written by someone who was personally acquainted with him or was otherwise an eyewitness to the events described. Furthermore, there is no independent historical record to weigh against any of them.· The surviving accounts of Jesus’ life from that period were all written by people who believed that he walked on water and was raised from the dead.

By the 19th century, biblical scholars were on a quest for the historical Jesus – a futile task, given the lack of contemporaneous source materials.· The effort continues today with the Jesus Seminar, in which scholars vote on the historical validity of Jesus’ words and actions as set forth in the gospels. The Seminar’s participants, mostly liberal academics, have concluded that Jesus probably did not say most of what is attributed to him in the gospels, nor did he perform such miracles as walking on water and raising Lazarus from the dead, much less rising from the dead himself.

However, as the mythologist Joseph Campbell has pointed out, the truth of religious myths has little to do with their factual basis. The important thing, it seems to me, is the meaning people derive from them, not whether they actually happened. The problem arises only because people try to make canonical texts something they are not. They are stories, pure and simple — stories that were passed down from generation to generation because they helped people understand something of who they were and where they came from.

So what are we to make of the story about Pilate’s gatekeeper? Apart from the regrettable anti-Semitic tropes found in its incarnation as the legend of the Wandering Jew, the story’s staying power in various guises over nearly a thousand years would suggest that it resonates deeply with people. The dubious notion that Jesus would have condemned Cartaphilus to wander the earth until the Second Coming makes Christ’s Passion an unlikely departure point point for the story. The story of Cain and Abel might have made for a better one. Cain murdered his brother Abel in the Book of Genesis and was condemned to wander the earth. There is no record in the Old Testament that Cain ever died. Adam and Eve’s older son was a frequent subject of rabbinic midrash due to unanswered questions about why he had murdered his brother and what had become of him. There is even a Mormon folktale that Cain never died and continues to wander the earth as a fugitive.

I am struck by the premise that a sinner — whether Cain or Cartaphilus — would be punished by being made to live almost forever. This is seemingly the opposite of the punishment Cain’s parents brought upon themselves for having disobeyed God and tasted the forbidden fruit. And why would Jesus, who promised immortality to his followers, condemn Cartaphilus to live forever — or at least live until the Lord brought down the curtain on all of creation? The only thing I can think is that the timelessness of immortality is not the same thing as having to endure endless time.

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