“In the light of the New Testament and the Church’s tradition,” Pope St. John Paul II affirmed, “we know that the woman announced by [Genesis 3:15] is Mary, and in ‘her seed’ we recognize her Son, Jesus, who triumphed over Satan’s power in the Paschal mystery” (General Audience, January 24, 1996). The Holy Father thus acknowledged a long tradition, extending back to the ancient Church and confirmed repeatedly and solemnly by the Magisterium, which recognizes the active role of Mary, together with and in subordination to her Son Jesus, in our salvation.
“Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet, et in Novo Vetus patet.”1
“The New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old becomes clear in the New.” These famous words of the great Doctor and Father of the Church, St. Augustine, in pointing to the very real and very enriching concepts of prophecy and typology, provide the context for showing how Christ, the Redeemer of mankind, and His Most Holy Mother, the Immaculate Coredemptrix, are revealed in Genesis 3:15.
There is no denying that there exists a plethora of translations of Sacred Scripture. Though the debate over which translation is best or most accurate is beyond the scope of this presentation, we choose to utilize here the Douay-Rheims translation, which is a faithful translation of St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. The Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome is preferable because of the approbation it enjoys within the Church. The Council of Trent states, “This sacred and holy Synod—considering that no small utility may accrue to the Church of God, if it be made known which out of all the Latin editions, now in circulation, of the sacred books, is to be held as authentic—ordains and declares, that the said old and Vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many years, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.”2
Before attempting an exegesis of Genesis 3:15, the overall context in which this verse appears must first be given. The verse appears within the second account of creation in the book of Genesis. In this account God created man out of the dust of the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils. God put man in the garden of Eden to till and keep it, and he gave man a command, saying: Of every tree of paradise thou shalt eat: But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat. For in what day soever thou shalt eat of it, thou shalt die the death (Gen 2:16-17).
After the first man, Adam, had named all the animals, and after Eve had been created from the side of Adam, Satan, in the form of a serpent, tempted Eve to disobey the command of God by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eve gave in to the temptation and led Adam to sin as well. Their eyes were both opened, and they hid themselves from the presence of God. After confronting them about their sin, God pronounced a curse upon the serpent. Thus, we are brought to the verse of interest.
The words of God to the serpent from Genesis 3:15 from the Latin Vulgate read: Inimicitias ponam inter te et mulierem, et semen tuum et semen illius: ipsa conteret caput tuum, et tu insidiaberis calcaneo ejus. The Douay-Rheims translation reads: I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.
To the narrative in general but also to this verse in particular is rightly designated the title of protoevangelium, because it stands as the first proclamation of the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, Redeemer of mankind, and of His Holy Mother, the Immaculate Coredemptrix. As the commentary from the Navarre Bible states, “This passage has been called the ‘protoevangelium,’ because it is the first announcement of the good news which mankind receives concerning the Redeemer-Messiah.”3 Thus, immediately after the joint fall of Adam and Eve, the Father of mercies promised a Redeemer and Coredemptrix to the human race.
But one may object saying, “On what grounds does such an interpretation stand?” It must be answered that such an interpretation stands firmly on the solemn papal magisterium of Bl. Pope Pius IX. In the Apostolic Constitution, Ineffabilis Deus, in which he defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, he stated:
The Fathers and ecclesiastical writers, enlightened by instruction from on high, taught that the divine prophecy: I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed, clearly and plainly foretold how there was to be a merciful Redeemer for mankind, namely, the only-begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ. They also taught how the prophecy pointed to His Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary, and how it clearly expressed at the same time their common enmity toward the devil. Just as Christ, the Mediator between God and men, by taking our nature, cancelled the decree of condemnation against us, triumphantly nailing it to the Cross, so too the most holy Virgin, intimately and indissolubly united to Christ, became with Him the everlasting enemy of the venomous serpent, and thus shared with her Son His victory over the serpent, crushing as she did the serpent’s head with her virginal foot.4
Thus, according to the Magisterium of the Church, Genesis 3:15 “clearly and plainly foretold how there was to be a merciful Redeemer for mankind, namely, the only-begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ… [and] how the prophecy pointed to His Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary.”5 “The [Church] Fathers and ecclesiastical writers, enlightened by instruction from on high”6 saw Jesus and Mary revealed in this scriptural passage.
Who were these “Fathers and ecclesiastical writers”? One of these, without a doubt, is St. Irenaeus, who wrote: “For this end did He put enmity between the serpent and the woman and her seed, they keeping it up mutually… until the seed did come appointed to tread down his head—which was born of Mary.”7 By identifying the appointed “seed” as being born of Mary, St. Irenaeus identifies the “seed” as Jesus Christ and the “woman” as the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Another Father of the Church, St. Cyprian, also recognizes the woman of Genesis as Mary and the seed as Christ, when he comments on Isaiah 7:14, stating that “this should be the sign of His nativity, that He should be born of a virgin—man and God—a son of man and a Son of God… This seed God had foretold would proceed from the woman that should trample on the head of the devil.”8 St. Cyprian goes on to quote Genesis 3:14-15 and, in so doing, not only connects the Virgin and Child of Isaiah 7:14 with Mary and Jesus, but also with the woman and the seed of Genesis 3:15.
One can also recognize that the identification of Christ as the New Adam and Mary as the New Eve by various Church Fathers implied a Messianic and Mariological interpretation of Genesis 3:15: the victory over the serpent is applied to Jesus, the New Adam, and to Mary, the New Eve.
We should note that St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas considered the protoevangelium to encompass not only Genesis 3:15, but also: (a) Genesis 2:7, “where the subject is the formation of Adam from the earth: the virgin earth from which Adam was formed is a figure of Mary Immaculate, from whom came the Christ”; and (b) Genesis 2:21-24, where “the sleep of Adam is seen as a mystic sleep. During it God revealed to the first man his plan for the Incarnation.” He further revealed “that [Adam] was a figure of Christ and that Eve, taken from his side was a figure of Mary and of the Church… The sleep of Adam is a type of the sleep of Christ on the Cross.”9
Thus, Genesis 3:15 must not be separated from the overall narrative in which it appears. While the single verse strictly prophesies the Redeemer and Coredemptrix, the overall narrative proclaims that Adam and Eve preceded them as types. As St. John Chrysostom states:
The symbols of our fall were a virgin, a tree and death. The virgin was Eve (for she had not yet known man); then there was the tree; and death was Adam’s penalty. And again these three tokens of our destruction, the virgin, the tree and death, became the tokens of our victory. Instead of Eve there was Mary; instead of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the wood of the cross; instead of Adam’s death, the death of Christ.
Do you see then that the devil was defeated by the very means he used to conquer? By a tree the devil laid Adam low, and by a tree Christ defeated him.10
By viewing Adam and Eve as types of Christ and Mary, St. John Chrysostom also declares that the woman and her seed, to whom are attributed the promised victory, are none other Christ and Mary. To whom else could those words be suitably applied? Surely, these are the only two persons who are, in every sense of the word, victorious over the serpent.
St. Justin Martyr further informs us that “Eve… conceiving the word from the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But Mary… when the angel announced to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her… answered: Be it done to me according to your word.”11 Here, we see not only the recognition that Eve is a type of Mary, but also that Mary’s fiat is a decisive moment in the history of salvation, the undoing of the ancient curse. Christ “was made man of the Virgin,” states St. Justin, “so that the disobedience brought on by the serpent might be cancelled out in the same manner in which it had begun.”12
St. Irenaeus also bears witness to the recognition of Eve as a type of Mary, when he states, “Just as she [Eve]… being disobedient, became a cause of death for herself and the whole human race: so Mary… being obedient, became a cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race.”13 He goes on to say, “For in no other way can that which is tied be untied unless the very windings of the knot are gone through in reverse: so that the first joints are loosed through the second, and the second in turn free the first… Thus, then, the knot of the disobedience of Eve was untied through the obedience of Mary.”14
While we have seen above the support of Bl. Pope Pius IX for the Messianic and Mariological interpretation of Genesis 3:15, there are yet other pronouncements of the Magisterium in this regard. In Munificentissimus Deus, the Apostolic Constitution defining the Dogma of the Assumption, Ven. Pope Pius XII stated, “We must remember especially that, since the second century, the Virgin Mary has been presented by the Holy Fathers as the New Eve, who, although subject to the New Adam, was most closely associated with Him in that struggle against the infernal enemy which, as foretold in the protoevangelium, was to result in that most complete victory over sin and death.”15
Only four years later, the same Pope, in his encyclical announcing the Marian Year of 1954, wrote the following: “The foundation of this doctrine [the Immaculate Conception] is seen in the very Sacred Scripture in which God… after the wretched fall of Adam, addressed the… serpent in these words, which not a few of the Holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and most approved interpreters refer to the Virgin Mother of God: ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman.’”16
Lex orandi, lex credenda: the law of praying is the law of believing. The Messianic and Mariological interpretation of Genesis 3:15 also finds support from the official prayer of the Church. In the Liturgy of the Hours, the first reading of the Office of Readings for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is taken from Genesis 3:9-15,20. If Genesis 3:15 was not a prophecy of the Blessed Virgin Mary and did not serve as a Scriptural basis for the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, there would be no reason for the Church to select it for so great a solemnity of the Blessed Virgin.
The same reasoning can be applied to the Benedictus antiphon of Lauds for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, prayed in the extraordinary form of the Divine Office. “The Lord God said to the serpent: I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, alleluia.”17 The Magnificat antiphon of Vespers is even more explicit: “This day is a rod sprung from the root of Jesse: this day is Mary conceived without any stain of sin: this day hath she bruised the head of the old serpent, alleluia.”18 The Chapter Hymn Verse reads: “This day the Holy Virgin Mary conceived without sin. The Virgin’s foot hath bruised the serpent’s head.”19
In all of these references, the woman of Genesis 3:15 is identified as the Immaculate Virgin Mary, and she is depicted in each as crushing the head of the ancient serpent, a depiction of which has found ample expression in Christian art. Perhaps the most famous artistic depiction of Our Lady crushing the head of the serpent is the image found on the miraculous medal, which is the fruit of the apparitions of Our Lady to St. Catherine Labouré in Paris, France, in 1830.
Genesis 3:15 is an extraordinarily rich verse. Not only does it clearly prophesy Jesus Christ, our Redeemer, and His Mother, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, it also serves as the scriptural basis for the Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, as well as for the doctrine of Marian Coredemption. The title of Coredemptrix points to the singular and unique—albeit inferior—role Our Lady played alongside Christ in His redemptive Passion. Just as Eve played a key role alongside Adam in our fall, so did the New Eve, Mary, play a key role with the New Adam in our redemption. This doctrine, like the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, finds support in the early Church Fathers’ recognition of Our Lady as the New Eve.
As we have seen, the Popes, Fathers of the Church, Doctors of the Church, modern scholars, Christian art, and the liturgy of the Church all bear witness to the “pre-announcement” of Jesus Christ, Redeemer of mankind, and His Mother Mary, the Immaculate Coredemptrix, contained in Genesis 3:15, the “protoevangelium.” May the recognition of such infinite mercy on the part of the Father of mercies towards our first parents inspire in our own hearts sentiments of heartfelt gratitude and hope, that we may open ourselves as much as possible to the mercy of God and avail ourselves of so plenteous a redemption.
1 Settimio Manelli, “Genesis 3:15 and the Immaculate Coredemptrix,” in Mary at the Foot of the Cross V: Redemption and Coredemption under the Sign of the Immaculate Conception, (New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate, 2005), 265.
2 The Council of Trent The Fourth Session: The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Ecumenical Council of Trent, Trans. J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848), 19.
3 The Navarre Bible: The Pentateuch (Princeton, NJ: Scepter Publishers), 82.
4 Pope Pius IX, Apostolic Constitution on The Immaculate Conception, Ineffabilis Deus (15 October 2015).
5 Ineffabilis Deus.
7 Manelli, “Genesis 3:15,” 276.
9 ibid., 277, footnote 32. See St. Bonaventure, Commentary on the Second Book of the Sentences, d. 23, dub. 4, and St. Thomas, Summa II, II q. 2, a. 7.
10 The Liturgy of the Hours: Volume 4, (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1975), 1660.
11 William Most, Mary In Our Life, (Garden
City, NY: Image Books, 1963), 24.
12 Most, Mary In Our Life, 24.
13 Most, Mary In Our Life, 25.
14 Most, Mary In Our Life, 25.
15 Manelli, “Genesis 3:15,” 281
16 Most, Mary In Our Life, 299.
17 The Roman Breviary in English and
Latin, (Philippines: Baronius Press, 2011),
18 The Roman Breviary, 1661.
19 The Roman Breviary, 1658.