“Death by Eve, life by Mary” — Saint Jerome (Epistle 22)
The standard Protestant attacks on Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary are generally based on the same false premise. The notion is that devotion to the Blessed Mother has nothing to do with Jesus. The tendency of Protestants is to put asunder what God hath joined together; they separate and oppose what is organically one and integral in Christianity: Faith versus good works, Scripture versus Tradition, Sacraments versus God’s interior movement, hierarchy versus the spiritual bond uniting Christians, human authority versus God’s authority, saints versus God, and Jesus versus Mary. Replace each “versus” with “and” and the truth becomes manifest: all these pairs of Christian realities are complementary in God’s plan of salvation. Rather than complain that Catholics are “misunderstood” in their approach to Mary, I would like to show, simply and briefly, how false the premise is. I will do this by exploring one of Our Lady’s ancient titles: The Second Eve.
The foundation of this beautiful alias is entirely biblical. Jesus Christ is the New Adam. Now, the old Adam had a helpmate like unto himself who was his partner in crime. It’s a parallelism that begs to be completed. Common sense tells us we don’t have to look far to complete it. For those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, the Gospels show us that Jesus had a partner in redemption, and that partner was Mary.
The “Last Adam”
Saint Paul provides us with the first part of our argument. It is this inspired title of Jesus Christ: The Last Adam. In two passages, the Blessed Apostle teaches us that Adam was a type 1 of Our Lord as the head of a new race. As Adam was the head of fallen humanity, Christ Our Lord is head of a regenerated, sanctified humanity. In the Epistle to the Romans, he tells us that “death reigned from Adam unto Moses, even over them also who have not sinned, after the similitude of the transgression of Adam, who is a figure of him who was to come ” (5:14). He further develops the thought in the Epistle to the Corinthians while speaking of the Resurrection. Proving to the doubting Corinthians that there will indeed be a resurrection on the last day, the Apostle contrasts the curse received through Adam with the blessings received through Christ: “For by a man came death: and by a man the resurrection of the dead. And as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:21-22).
Later, he continues the contrast by showing its origin in the corrupted nature we inherit from Adam as opposed to the heavenly nature we receive by the grace of Our Lord:
“The first man Adam was made into a living soul; the last Adam into a quickening spirit. Yet that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural: afterwards that which is spiritual. The first man was of the earth, earthly: the second man, from heaven, heavenly. Such as is the earthly, such also are the earthly: and such as is the heavenly, such also are they that are heavenly. Therefore, as we have borne the image of the earthly, let us bear also the image of the heavenly” (1 Cor. 15:45-49).
According to Saint Paul, Jesus is the “last Adam” or the “second man” who came to restore to the human race what we lost in the Fall.
All who call themselves Christian accept this Adam-Christ parallel. We will not prove it or develop it here. Our task is to complete the picture by showing that Christ, like Adam, had a “helpmate like unto himself” (Gen. 2:18) who was his partner in the redemption. This will establish a strong foundation for Catholic Marian beliefs and devotions. Our approach is to present the doctrine of the “Second Eve” in the thoughts of the Fathers of the Church, whose testimony to the Eve-Mary parallel shows that these ancient defenders of the Christian religion were generous in their love of Our Lady (like Catholics) and not “Marian minimizers.”
Common to many of the Fathers’ texts on the Second Eve is the notion that Our Lady’s Annunciation was the antithesis of Eve’s disobedience. The parallels are obvious: both were women, both were virgins, both were approached by angels who promised them something glorious should they cooperate with their respective propositions, both stood at the dawn of creation (Christ’s work was a “new creation”). The contrasts, too, are obvious: In the one case, disobedience of God brought misery, while in the other, obedience brought about happiness; the one was all-too-eager to hear what the evil spirit was suggesting, while the second was “troubled” at the angel’s wondrous greeting; the first accepted the angelic proposal even though it contradicted God’s word, while the second tested the message by its fidelity to God’s word. 2
The earliest known reference to the Eve-Mary parallel is that of Saint Justin Martyr, who died around 165. It is likely that this great philosopher-martyr was referring to an older tradition when he made the following reference, contrasting Mary’s Annunciation with Eve’s encounter with the serpent:
“[The Son of God] became man through a Virgin, so that the disobedience caused by the serpent might be destroyed in the same way it had begun. For Eve, who was virgin and undefiled, gave birth to disobedience and death after listening to the serpent’s words. But the Virgin Mary conceived faith and joy; for when the angel Gabriel brought her the glad tidings that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and that the power of the Most High would overshadow her, so that the Holy One born of her would be the Son of God, she answered, ‘Let it be done to me according to thy word’ (Lk. 1:38). Thus was born of her the [Child] about whom so many Scriptures speak, as we have shown. Through Him, God crushed the serpent, along with those angels and men who had become like the serpent.” (Dialogue with Trypho 100, quoted in Mary and the Fathers of the Church , by Luigi Gambero, Ignatius Press, 1999 [hereafter, MFC], pg. 47.)
A later witness of the parallel between Gabriel and the serpent is Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (+403): “Death came through a virgin, Eve. It was necessary that life also should come through a virgin, so that, as the serpent deceived the former, so Gabriel might bring glad tidings to the latter.” (Catecheses 12,15; MFC, pg. 135.)
“Cause of Salvation”
Many of the patristic texts on this subject assign to the Virgin an active role in man’s salvation. She was no mere passive recipient of grace. For instance, here is Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (+c.202), who tells us that Mary is the “cause of salvation,” whereas Eve had been the “cause of death”:
“Even though Eve had Adam for a husband, she was still a virgin. … By disobeying, she became the cause of death for herself and for the whole human race. In the same way, Mary, though she also had a husband, was still a virgin, and by obeying, she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race. … The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience. What Eve bound through her unbelief, Mary loosed by her faith.” (Against Heresies 3, 22; MFC, pg. 54. Unless otherwise noted, all italics in quotes are ours.)
Those tempted to object to this causality attributed to Mary should note that it is a perfect expression of Catholic Marian orthodoxy. The role of the Blessed Virgin is dependant on Christ in much the same manner as the role of Eve was dependant on Adam. God, who was no feminist, made salvation dependant on the action of a Man, just as He punished our race because of the sin of a man. Here we need to repeat what many are probably unaware of, namely, that it was Adam’s sin, not Eve’s , which is the original sin. Saint Paul reminds us that, in the order of time, the woman sinned first: “For Adam was first formed; then Eve. And Adam was not seduced; but the woman, being seduced, was in the transgression” (1 Tim. 2:13-14). But he also lets us know that Adam’s fall was the fall of the entire race: “For by a man came death: and by a man the resurrection of the dead. And as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:21-22). For Catholics, Adam’s exclusive role in the original sin is dogma. The same is true for many Protestants. The Calvinist New England Primer memorably put it this way: “In Adam’s fall, we sinn-ed all.”
Now, while God was no feminist, He did give woman a special place. Eve was, for Adam, a “helpmate like unto himself” (Gen. 2:18). When she sinned and encouraged him to sin, she failed in that role. All this goes to show, that while Adam’s was the original sin, Eve had a real, active, and causal role. Invert that in the case of the New Adam. The work of redemption was the work of Christ. But He had a helpmate. Hence, we see the reasonableness of Mary’s title, “Co-Redemptrix.” 3
Saint Irenaeus writes elsewhere about Mary’s effective role in undoing what Eve did. This Father of the Church had a very profound theology which developed Saint Paul’s doctrine in Ephesians (1:10) about the “recapitulation” of all things in Christ. All human history, from Adam to his last son, are “recapitulated” in Christ so that what went wrong in Adam will be made right in the Second Adam. He details this theology in his Against the Heresies , the work we cited earlier. Here, in another work, he makes reference to the same idea, but with a beautiful Marian twist:
“Adam had to be recapitulated in Christ, so that death might be swallowed up in immortality, and Eve [had to be recapitulated] in Mary, so that the Virgin, having become another virgin’s advocate, might destroy and abolish one virgin’s disobedience by the obedience of another virgin.” (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 33; MFC, pg. 55.)
Note again the active nature of the Blessed Virgin’s role: Mary destroyed Eve’s disobedience.
Another who gives Our Lady an active role in the redemption is Saint Ephrem the Syrian (+373), the “Harp of the Holy Ghost.” Saint Ephrem is one of the early witnesses to the Immaculate Conception and to the Marian interpretation of Genesis 3:15 (“she shall crush thy head”; the “she” being Mary). Here he espouses this position, throwing in the Eve-Mary typology: “Because the serpent had struck Eve with his claw, the foot of Mary bruised him.” (Diatesseron 10, 13; MFC, pg. 117.)
Saint Jerome (+420) was one of Our Lady’s great defenders in the fifth century. It is he who stood up for her perpetual virginity when a filthy heretic named Helvidius attacked it. Speaking of the wife of Job, who foolishly advised Job to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9), he notes the devil’s trick of using women to ensnare men:
“Observe the cleverness of the ancient foe. He ferociously preyed upon the substance of the just man [Job]. … He left him nothing but his tongue and his wife, so that one tempted him while the other blasphemed. The devil remembered the old trick by which he had once ensnared Adam through the woman… thinking that he could always trap men by using woman. But he did not consider that, if a man was ruined by a woman once, now the whole world has been saved through a woman. You are thinking of Eve, but consider Mary: the former drove us out of paradise; the latter leads us back to heaven .” (Tract on Psalm 96, 1; MFC, pg. 212.)
“Mother of all the Living”
We have already seen Saint Cyril of Jerusalem making reference to the death-and-life contrast between Eve and Mary. This is a common observation of the Fathers. Here is Saint Epiphanius of Salamis (+403) explaining that Our Lady is the “cause of life”:
“But we must consider another marvelous aspect of the comparison between Eve and Mary. Eve became for men the cause of death, because through her death entered the world. Mary, however, was the cause of life, because life has come to us through her. For this reason, the Son of God came into the world, and, ‘where sin abounded grace superabounded’ (Rom. 5:20). Whence death had its origin, thence came forth life, so that life would succeed death. If death came from woman, then death was shut out by him who, by means of the woman, became our life.” (Against the Heresies 78; MFC, pg. 129.)
Saint Epiphanius’ contemporary, the renowned Patriarch of Constantinople, Saint John Chrysostom (+407), expressed the same idea in fewer words: “A virgin drove us out of paradise; through a Virgin, we have found eternal life.” (Commentary on Psalm 44 , 7; MFC, pg. 179.)
And in the West, the same was poetically set forth by the Latin author, Caelius Sedulius (+c.440). Playing off Saint Paul’s reference to the Adam-Christ parallel in Romans 5:12, he sings:
“Because of one man, all his descendants perished;
And all are saved because of one man.
Because of one woman, the deadly door opened;
And life returned, because of one woman.” (Elegia 5-8; MFC, pg. 285.)
This life-death imagery finds a concretely scriptural expression in the way that some of the Fathers employed the phrase “mother of all the living.” The words come from Genesis 3:20: “And Adam called the name of his wife Eve: because she was the mother of all the living.” (Eve’s name is related to the Hebrew verb hawwah , “to live.”) Saint Epiphanius of Salamis (+403), from whom we have already heard, ponders the mystery of Eve’s receiving this name after the fall, that is, after death entered the world. But Christ is the “Living One” who gives life to the world. Therefore, the title is more fittingly applied to Mary:
“‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you’ (Lk. 1:28). This is she who was prefigured by Eve and who symbolically received the title of mother of the living. For Eve was called mother of the living after she had heard the words, ‘You are dust and to dust you shall return (Gen. 3:19), in other words, after the fall. It seems odd that she should receive such a grand title after having sinned. Looking at the matter from the outside, one notices that Eve is the one from whom the entire human race took its origin on this earth. Mary, on the contrary, truly introduced life itself into the world by giving birth to the Living One, so that Mary has become the Mother of the living.” (Against the Heresies 78; MFC, pp. 128-129.)
At the same time he calls Mary the “true Mother of all the living,” Saint Peter Chrysologus (+450) identifies her as the woman in the parable of the leaven (Mt 13:33, Lk. 13:21):
“Through Christ, she became the true Mother of all the living, who in Adam had become the mother of all the dead. Christ willed to be born in this way, so that, as death came to all though Eve, so life might return to all through Mary.
“For Mary corresponds to the typology of the leaven, she bears its likeness, she authenticates the figure, since she receives the leaven of the Word from above and receives his human flesh into her virginal womb, and, in her virginal womb, she transfuses the heavenly man into the entire mass [of dough]”. (Sermon 99, 5; MFC, pg. 298.)
The title of Our Lady we have presented in this article is quite ancient indeed. The scholarly Cardinal Newman, who wrote a book on the subject, considered it to be apostolic in its origin. 4 He implies, and others have more explicitly surmised, that it is Saint John who taught the doctrine to the first Christians. It is well known that Saint Irenaeus, whom we have cited, was a student of Saint Polycarp who was, in turn, a student of Saint John. How appropriate that this doctrine should come to us through the Apostle to whom Our Lord, from the Cross, gave Our Lady to be his Mother! The three earliest witnesses to the doctrine — Saint Justin, Saint Irenaeus, and Tertullian — had completed their work at the beginning of the third century. They represent Palestine, Asia Minor, and Africa respectively, and offer their testimony in both Greek and Latin. These facts militate in favor of the apostolic origin of the title.
In the centuries subsequent to the patristic age, many pious souls brought out the conclusions implicit in the utterances of the Fathers. The French Holy Ghost Father, Henri Barré (1905-1968), collected 200 Eve-Mary texts dating from the fifth to the thirteenth centuries. Among these authors, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux used the title with great frequency. Whereas the Fathers content themselves to label Mary as the New Eve and show her active role in our salvation in a general way, these later writers have become more minute in their refinement of the typology.
We cannot resist one passing Medieval reference. It is from the prayer, Ave Maris Stella (Hail, Star of the Sea), which dates at least as far back as the ninth century:
“Taking that sweet Ave ,
which from Gabriel came,
peace confirm within us,
changing Eva’s name.”
In Latin, this stanza contains a nice pun. Ave spelled backwards is Eva , the Latin for “Eve.” By accepting Gabriel’s proposal, Mary reversed what Eve did.
The Passion Partnership
Perhaps the most beautifully developed aspect of the Eve-Mary parallel is that of Our Lady as the Sorrowful Mother. Beginning in the middle ages, learned men “connected the dots” between Eden and Calvary to show the many correspondences. But, as we said, these further developments were only refinements of what was already implicit in the writings of the early Fathers and, for that matter, what Holy Scripture itself presents to us. If Mary was a “helpmate” to Jesus in the Redemption of man, and if Jesus redeemed us on the Cross, then Mary’s standing at the foot of the Cross must be more than just coincidence. If Mary is “Mother of the Living,” then Christ’s words to Saint John, “Behold thy mother,” must have some deeper meaning. If Mary is the “woman” foretold in Genesis 3:15, as some of the Fathers held, then we can explain Jesus calling her “Woman” from the Cross as a reference to the Eve-Mary analogy. If the “tree” of the Cross (cf. Acts 5:30, 10:39; Gal. 3:13) corresponds to the “tree of life” of Genesis (an ancient parallel, commonly accepted by Catholics and Protestants alike), then the New Adam and New Eve are there united at the New Tree, bringing forth life for our race, rather than the death wrought by our first parents at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The associations could be multiplied at great length.
In his This Tremendous Lover , Father Mary Eugene Boylan summarizes the thing this way: “In that work of Redemption God followed a plan which ran in what we might call ‘parallel opposition’ to the plan of the fall. With the new Adam there is associated a new Eve; and as Eve brought death to the whole race in as much as she was their Mother, so Mary, the new Eve, should become our mother in order to give us life.” 5
He further makes his own the thoughts of Pope Leo XIII, in Iucunda Semper : “For when she as God’s handmaid consented to be God’s Mother, she did so as consort with Him in His painful expiation for the human race. So that there is no doubt that she shared deeply in the cruel agony and torture of her Son.”
Pope Pius XII made a similar observation, in Mystici Corporis Christi : “[Mary] offered him on Golgotha to the eternal Father together with the holocaust of her maternal rights of motherly love, like a new Eve, for all the children of Adam contaminated through his unhappy fall.”
Those who saw the movie, The Passion of the Christ , were given a heavy theatrical dose of this kind of thinking. If ever anyone has truly captured the “Com-Passion” of Mary on screen, it was Mel Gibson; yet how many saw the movie and missed it completely ? Shortly after the movie came out, I spoke to a reporter who writes for a secular newspaper in a nearby city. She told me about going to see the movie on the Saturday after its Ash Wednesday release. As she was leaving the office to go to the theater, her editor told her to interview fellow moviegoers for a story. Most of those she interviewed were Protestants who seemed quite moved. The reporter was wondering if these non-Catholics had noticed the obviously Catholic imagery in the film. She began to ask them. For the most part, they were clueless. Only when she began to detail the thick Eucharistic and Marian imagery did some of them say, “Oh yeah !”
But it should come as no surprise that they miss Our Lady in the movie; they get her all wrong in the Book!
It has occurred to me that in all this defense of Mary as the New Eve, I’ve been quoting men exclusively. It would seem appropriate in this article on Our Lady to leave the final word to a lady. And who could be better than that gifted and holy extoller of the beauty of virginity, the twelfth-century Abbess, Saint Hildegard? Modern feminists foolishly claim her as a medieval patroness of their cause. They do this as they conveniently fail to mention she is a Catholic saint, calling her “Hildegard von Bingen.” Here she is singing of the Virgin Mary, from whom “a blessing flows greater than the harm Eve did to men”:
A very great cause it was for lamenting and mourning,
That through the counsel of the serpent, sorrow and guilt
flowed into woman.
For that woman, whom God had set to be the mother of us all,
she destroyed her own womb with the wounds of ignorance
and gave birth to all pain for her children.
But, O dawn, from your womb
a new Sun rises,
which has cleansed all Eve’s sins,
and through you a blessing flows
greater than the harm Eve did to men.
And thus you have saved us, you who bore the New Light for humankind.
Gather then the members of your
Son into celestial harmony. 6
1 On”type” in this sense and typology, see “Ark of the New Covenant” in From the Housetops 57, pp. 45 ff.
2 See Luke 1:34-38, where it is obvious that Mary does not give her consent to Saint Gabriel’s proposition until she is assured that the conception will be accomplished without any violation of her virginity, as per the prophesy of Isaias 7:14: “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” St. Ambrose and other Church Fathers wisely inferred from this that Mary had made a vow of virginity prior to the Annunciation.
3 This title has never been defined by the Church, but was used by at least one Pope (Pius XI in an allocution to pilgrims from Vicenza, November 30, 1933). We think Father Boylan’s explanation of the title should clarify that, understood properly, it implies no infringement on Our Lord’s unique prerogatives as the only Redeemer: “Theologians are still discussing Mary’s share in the Redemption. The title co-redemptrix has been applied to her, and she has a perfect right to it; but the title must not be misunderstood. It does not imply that Christ’s work of Redemption was incomplete, or that there is a single part of the whole plan of Redemption that does not depend upon Him. Even the act by which we enter into our share of His grace, depends upon a grace coming from Him. The title means that God freely and without any necessity decided to associate Mary in the Redemption so that she should share in the glory of it. But every single act by which she co-operated drew all its value from the merits of Christ the Redeemer, and was vivified by His grace. Independently of Christ, Mary could contribute nothing to the Redemption. Everything she did was done through Christ, with Christ and in Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit. In no one is the life of the Mystical Body of Christ so complete and so perfect. ” (M. Eugene Boylan, O. Cist. R., This Tremendous Lover , The Newman Press, Westminster, MD, 1957, pg. 334
4 John Henry Cardinal Newman, The New Eve , Newman Press, Westminster, MD, 1952, pp. 17-18.
5 M. Eugene Boylan, O. Cist. R., This Tremendous Lover , The Newman Press, Westminster, MD, 1957, pg. 329.