Difficult Bible Passages – Genesis 3:15 – Jesus or Mary?

The Latin Vulgate Bible gives the text of Genesis 3:15 as follows (with my English translation).

{3:15} Inimicitias ponam inter te et mulierem, et semen tuum et semen illius: ipsa conteret caput tuum, et tu insidiaberis calcaneo eius.
{3:15} I will put enmities between you and the woman, between your offspring and her offspring. She will crush your head, and you will lie in wait for her heel.”

The verse is the Lord God speaking to the serpent, who tempted Adam and Eve to sin.

On the literal level of meaning, it refers to a conflict between Eve and the serpent (the devil). God declares that Eve and her offspring (humanity) will be at enmity with the devil and his “offspring”. And while the devil and other fallen angels cannot conceive offspring, all the fallen angels were led by Satan to rebel against God (so very long ago), and so they are in a sense his spiritual offspring.

On the spiritual level of meaning, Eve represents the Blessed Virgin Mary, just as Adam represents Christ. So Mary and her “offspring”, that is, her spiritual children (the faithful) will be at enmity with the fallen angels.

But the offspring of Mary is Christ, and certainly Christ is at enmity with all evil, including the fallen angels. Thus, the verse has two different spiritual meanings, both true. There is enmity between the woman Mary and the devil. There is enmity between Mary’s spiritual children and all the fallen angels. Mary crushes the head of the devil by being the Mediatrix of all graces to us fallen sinners. But then, too, Christ crushes the head of the devil, through His Body the Church (of which Mary is a figure).

A controversy surrounds the bold text above, ipsa conteret, which means “she will crush”. Some commentators claim that “ipsa” (she) is a copyist error, and that the original and only correct wording is “ipse” (he) or “ipsum” (neuter, referring to the neuter word offspring). This claim originated with Protestant objections to the Catholic interpretation on the role of Mary in Christ’s work of salvation. But it has been adopted by many modernist Catholic commentators.

The Pope Sixtus V Latin Vulgate Bible (1590) and the three editions of the Pope Clement VIII Latin Vulgate Bible (1592, 1593, 1598) give the text of Genesis 3:15 as “ispa” (she). These editions of the Bible were based on about 6000 ancient manuscripts. It is highly unlikely, even from a secular point of view, that a copyist error could enter so many editions of the Bible that a change would occur affecting the meaning of the text. Furthermore, the grace and providence of God protects Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, to prevent any truth from being lost, and any error from being introduced. Both reason and faith, therefore, indicate that “ipsa” is not an error.

The assumption of most commentators on this point is that the original Latin text must have had one reading or the other. I disagree. God has seen fit not to permit us to have the original editions of any book of the Bible, Old Testament or New Testament. The oldest manuscripts of any book always exist with many “variants”, and there are literally tens of thousands of these variants in the whole Bible. It is not unusual for there to be multiple reliable ancient manuscripts as well as multiple reliable quotes from, and commentaries on, a passage indicating two or more different wordings for the text. You might see this in your English edition of the Bible in footnotes saying something like “other authorities read….”

Is it the case that only one wording is correct, and all of the other wordings are errors? No, I don’t think so. God permits these variations because Sacred Scripture is full of meaning; it is exceedingly dense with truth. And sometimes the best expression of that truth is to have multiple wordings of the same verse, each of which is correct as an expression of truth in the Word of God.

So, in this case, either wording, “she” referring to Mary, or “he” referring to Christ, expresses the truth.

Some commentators argue that Saint Jerome’s Latin Bible uses “ipse”. But we do not have the original manuscripts from Saint Jerome’s Latin Bible. All we have are subsequent copies of copies of copies, that have gone through many edits.

And the Latin Bible did not begin with Saint Jerome. The Latin Bible (Vetus Latina) began when many different early Christians, whose names are lost to us, translated individual books into Latin from the Greek and Hebrew. By the time of Saint Jerome, there were almost as many different editions of the Bible in Latin as there were copies of the Bible in Latin. His original task, assigned to him by the Pope, was to look over the many existing editions of the Bible books in Latin, and choose between the many different wordings. (Later, he also translated from Greek and from Hebrew.)

Undoubtedly, some Vetus Latina texts read “ipsa” (she) and some read “ipsum” (neuter) in this verse. The word “ipse” (he) is less likely. The pronoun ipsum is neuter because the word offspring is neuter in Latin. When the meaning is taken to refer to Eve/Mary, then ipsa is used (she). But when the meaning is taken to refer to “offspring”, then ipsum is used because offspring is neuter in Latin. The word “ipse” might be used in a literal translation of the Hebrew, since offspring is a masculine noun in Hebrew. But grammatically, in Latin, you would usually prefer “ipsum” because that pronoun is referring to a neuter noun in Latin (offspring).

Jerome and other holy commentators may well have used “ipse” in discussing the verse, since the offspring of Mary is Christ. Some may have made an ad hoc translation from the Hebrew using “ipse” — Bible commentators today still sometimes use ad hoc translations when explaining a particular verse or passage. And a very literal translation of the Hebrew would use ipse.

However, the Pope Sixtus V and Pope Clement VIII editions all use “ipsa” (scan of page here). And the critical Latin edition of the Bible, published at Stuttgart also uses “ipsa” (text here). So scholars are not unanimous in proclaiming “ipsa” to be an error.

The Nova Vulgata on the Vatican website uses “ipsum”, because, as I said, that is the grammatically correct pronoun (neuter) to refer to the word offspring, which is neuter. One justification for using ipse would be an overly literal translation of the Hebrew, in which “offspring” is a masculine noun. (However, the Hebrew pronouns for “he” and for “she” can also mean “it”.)

Another justification for using “ipse” (despite the fact that Latin grammar requires “ipsum”) is the understanding that the offspring of Mary is Christ; a good translator presents the meaning of the text in the translation, not merely a word-for-word equivalency. But if “ipse” is justified on the grounds of translating the meaning, then so is “ipsa” justified. For the meaning of the verse includes both Mary and Jesus, both the woman and her offspring.

The original Hebrew text probably used the masculine pronoun, to refer to offspring, but the authors, editors, and commentators at that time did not have in mind the meanings referring to Christ and Mary. The pronoun was the masculine because the Hebrew word for offspring is masculine.

When the Hebrew was translated into Latin, ipsum was probably the favored word, since the Latin for offspring is neuter and ipsum is the neuter pronoun. But subsequent Latin translators perhaps used ipsa, expressing the understanding of the Church as to the meaning of the text referring to Mary, and others may have used ipse, either so as to refer to Christ or as a more literal rendering of the Hebrew.

By the time of Pope Sixtus V and Pope Clement VIII, ipsa was certainly the favored wording in the Church, as the official Latin Bible of the Church (in all 4 editions) shows.

However, the claim is false that all the early Church fathers witness to the use of the masculine in this verse. Below is a lengthy quote from the commentary in the original Douai Old Testament on Genesis 3:15.

“15. she shall bruise] Protestants will not admit this reading, ipsa conteret, she shall bruise, lest our Blessed Lady should be said any way to bruise the serpents head. And Kemnisius amongst others saith, that all ancient Fathers read, ipsum, not, ipsa. But he is convinced of lying by Claudius Marius Victor. lib. I. in Gen. Alcimus Auitus lib. 3. corm. c. 6. St. Chrysostom hom. 17. in Genes. St. Ambrose lib. de juga sceculi cap. 7. St. Augustine lib. 2. de Genesi contra Manichceos, cap. 18 & lib. II. de Genesi ad literam cap. 26. St. Gregory lib. I. Moralium cap. 38. And after them St. Bede, Eucherius, Rabanus, Rupertus, Strabus, and Lira upon this place, St. Bernard ser 2. super MiBus est. And many others, who read ipsa as the Latin text now hath. [See Card. Bellannin. Ii. 2. c. 12. de verbo Dei.]

“But whether we read. she shall bruise, or, her seed, that is her son Christ, shall bruise the serpents head, we attribute no more, nor no less to Christ, nor to our Lady by the one reading, then by the other: for by the text, I will put Enmities between thee and the woman, between thy seed, and her seed. It is clear, that this enmity and battle pertained to the woman and her seed on the one party, and to this Devil, that spake by the serpent, and all the wicked, on the other party, and that the victory should happen to mankind. Which being captive by Adam’s sin, occasioned by a woman, should be redeemed, both sexes, though in far different sort, concurring thereto. And so it is most true, that Christ by his own proper power, and his blessed mother by her most immediate cooperating to his Incarnation (and consequently to other Mysteries) did bruise the serpents head, break and vanquish his power. As many ancient Fathers do excellently discourse: namely St. Bernard, writing upon these words in the Apocalypse. cap. 12. A great sign appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun: Albeit (saith he) by one man and one woman we were greatly damaged: yet (God be thanked) by one man and one woman all losses are repaired, and that not without great increase of graces. For the benefit doth far exceed the loss. Our merciful father giving us for a terrestrial Adam Christ our Redeemer, & for old Eve God’s own mother. Moreover as the same St. Bernard showeth, this blessed Virgin in singular sort bruised the serpents head, in that she quite vanquished all manner suggestions of the wicked serpent. Never yielding to, nor taking delight in any evil moved by him.”

Notice that in the commentary above numerous Saints and other holy commentators witness to the use of “ispa” (she) in the verse. But as the quote says, both readings are true.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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