In search of the truth of who crushes the head of the serpent in Gen 3:15
A small controversy developed recently in a Bible Study class I participate in. It was on the book of Genesis Chapter 3 verse 15. Depending on your translation, it may refer to an offspring of the women crushing the head of Satan in either the feminine, masculine, or a neutral persona. Let’s examine the words from several translations.
“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.” Douay-Reims
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition
“And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”KJV
αὐτός σου τηρήσει κεφαλήν (“he will watch your head”) Greek Septuagint
ipsa conteret caput tuum (“she will crush your head”) Latin Vulgate
ipsum conteret caput tuum (“it will crush your head”) Nova Vulgata (1979)
In the Bible Study we follow the Companion Bible, which uses the authorized version of 1611 (KJV). There are notes and appendixes added by Bullinger in the early twentieth century. Bullinger’s notes for 3:15 state:
15. It, i.e. Christ. The corruption of this in the Vulgate into “she” lies at the root of Mariolatry: the verb in sing. masc. shows that zer’a (seed) is here to be taken in singular, with Sept, i.e. ChristCompanion Bible
I’ll be the first to confess I’m not a linguist or student of the Hebrew or Greek but I do question why the KJV said “it shall bruise” if, according to Bullinger, “the sing. masc.” shows it to be Christ. If the KJV translators were as studious as Bullinger, why would they not have changed the translation from “it” to “he”? They must have felt there was some room for doubt on whether it was masculine or feminine or that it might be more than 1 person crushing the head of the serpent.
Bullinger also makes an assertion that the Latin Vulgate included the word she for this part of the sentence and the use of that somehow implies Mariolatry for those who translated the Latin Vulgate. After all the Greek Septuagint uses the masculine pronoun. Since the Douay-Reims includes the reference to “she” it must be somehow linked to the Vulgate. As a Catholic when I read that from a Protestant translator I know that there is a serious misunderstanding about the Roman Catholic church teaching on Mary. I have to wonder whether Bullinger himself was a fallible or infallible man? Could he have made a mistake on his interpretation? On his assertion that it was Mariolatry? Needless to say I wanted to know the real truth behind why the word she was put in the Latin Vulgate and subsequently in the Douay-Reims.
Another bible resource I use is the Didache with commentaries based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The commentary they have for this verse is as follows:
3:15 In this verse, called the Protoevangelium (“First Gospel”), God promised that the offspring of the women would defeat Satan. Christians see this promise fulfilled in Mary and her Son, Jesus Christ, whose Death on the Cross and Resurrection conquered sin and death. For this reason, Christ and His Mother are referred to as the New Adam and New Eve. Mention of the bruising of the heel represents the pain and suffering imparted by the Devil on humanity; the crushed head signifies a mortal wound that would be delivered by Christ, which would vanquish Satan and the forces of evil for those who accept Christ and His teachings. As seen repeatedly throughout salvation history, God is able to bring good out of evil. The Exsultet during the Mass of Easter Vigil intones, “O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ! O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer. (CCC 55, 70, 407-412, 489)Didache with Commentaries from the CCC
And there you have the Catholic church teaching it is Christ that crushes the head of the serpent. Which still begs the question, “Why did the Vulgate and Douay-Reims both use the word she?” The Vulgate was the translation used for over 1,500 years. Why did God allow it to be wrong, if it was wrong, for such a long time. The KJV was produced in the late 16th century or about 600 years ago. If the Vulgate might have been corrupted by a bias like Bullinger asserts, might also could the KJV be corrupt by a bias in the other direction? Is it possible in those situations where the manuscript indicates it could be one or the other, could a personal bias by the translator remove the possibility for either/or and just “clear it up” by their fallible interpretation.
In his article on this subject, Mark Giszczak, discusses the Greek and Hebrew texts. He points out that “in Greek, the masculine pronoun autos is used even though the antecedent (spermatos, seed) is neuter. It seems that the masculine is preferred here by the translator because the seed/offspring of Eve would presumably be a person, not a thing. The Nova Vulgata uses ipsum, a neuter pronoun referring to a neuter noun (seed, semen). But St. Jerome’s Vulgate is the outlier here, reading ipsa, which here is the feminine nominative singular (not the nom/acc neuter plural) and the Douay-Rheims version is based on the Vulgate.”
A good homily was given on June 6, 2022. June 6 is the Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church. In his homily Fr. Peter discusses that aspect of Mariolatry referred to as Mary Worship as a Godess. As he states, Catholics don’t worship Mary, they worship her Son. In his homily Fr. Peter uses three terms: Latria, Hyperdulia, and Dulia.
It is certainly a complex topic covering thousands of years and many interpretations from those who claim to listen to the Holy Spirit in their interpretation. How can the Holy Spirit tell it one way to one group and a completely different way to another group of very faithful Christians?
Not satisfied with any of the answers so far I decide to go on a quest for more information about the time period and people for the translations: the KJV, Douay-Reims, and Vulgate.
Dr. Taylor Marshall writes about this topic in his article on taylormarshall.com.
He first points out the rather obvious fact that “it doesn’t much matter since either reading is orthodox and true. Christ crushes the head of Satan absolutely, and Mary crushes the head of Satan by virtue of her role as the Mother of God and New Eve.”
He also talks about roles of Mary in “the ‘she shall crush’ reading supports the Catholic argument that Mary’s role as Mother of God makes her Mediatrix and her role as New Eve makes her Coredemptrix.”
Those two roles will be important from a Catholic prophecy perspective since the church will receive great blessings from God as soon as the fifth Marian dogma is established. As the church goes, so goes society. Great blessings will be abundant across all nations when this happens.
Dr. Marshall searches for the truth in the old Hebrew manuscripts. Unfortunately, even the Hebrew manuscripts are not all in unison on the language of this verse. Is God just playing a mind game with us throughout the years on this one? Or is there some divine purpose to always bring up both the feminine and masculine in the interpretation of this verse.
Dr. Marshall then discusses reasons to believe the “she” is the correct interpretation. He identifies three Jewish witnesses on the interpretation of this verse: Philo Judaeus, Josephus the roman historian, and Moses Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher.
As in all investigative adventures, a new trail is established and now I need to know what each of these said, and when.
The site newadvent.org claims to be a Catholic Encyclopedia of the old texts.
The reading “she” (ipsa) is neither an intentional corruption of the original text, nor is it an accidental error; it is rather an explanatory version expressing explicitly the fact of Our Lady’s part in the victory over the serpent, which is contained implicitly in the Hebrew original. The strength of the Christian tradition as to Mary’s share in this victory may be inferred from the retention of “she” in St. Jerome’s version in spite of his acquaintance with the original text and with the reading “he” (ipse) in the old Latin version.https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15464b.htm
And so it is that St. Jerome is a key player who believed “She” was the correct interpretation. St. Jerome was born about the year 340-342. And he is given this understanding from reading the Hebrew and Latin. It is also noted here that “no author had such influence on the upbuilding of ecclesiastical Latin as St. Jerome had. His contribution came mainly along the lines of literary Latin. From his master, Donatus, he had received a grammatical instruction that made him the most literary and learned of the Fathers, and he always retained a love for correct diction”
If, as Bullinger points out, this is rooted in Mariolatry, it is likely St. Jerome would be the target of the accusation. Yet, from all the records of St. Jerome, he was a true scholar of the written word and “He prized good writing so highly that he grew angry whenever he was accused of a solecism.” Is it possible he let his emotions overtake him and lead him to error? It seems highly unlikely.
The Latin Vulgate which St. Jerome reviewed and updated was the source text for all others for over 1,500 years. Which is more time than any modern translation can claim. St. Jerome also had a love for accuracy and would be horrified if he misquoted something or, indirectly, was leading people to error based on his translation of the source texts.
This brings us full circle back to asking if God is bringing this up during these times to bring the church to realize the true role He wants Mary, the Mother of God, the God Bearer, the Theotokos to play in the salvation plan. No, she is not a redeemer, only Jesus redeems us through His sacrifice. But, she did have a role to play in saying “Yes” to God’s plan for bringing His Son into the world as that sacrifice. She in no way is an equal redeemer, but through her intercession, she brings others to the true Redeemer.