The ‘Woman’ of Genesis

In changing the traditional Douay-Rheims rendering of Genesis 3:15 from “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 Catholic Revised Standard Version translation (based on the King James Bible), “I will put enmities between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed: he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel,” the scriptural foundation for the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is compromised. So, too, is the traditional doctrine concerning Our Lady’s essential role in salvation history, which has been translated into her more modern title of “Co-redemptrix.”

Our Lady, the “Woman” of Holy Scripture

I have read somewhere that certain fathers interpreted the words of Our Lord to His mother at Cana: “Woman, What is this to me and to thee? My hour has not yet come,” as a question about “the hour.” Not that Our Lord was ignorant of what His motherMary would ask, for He knew all things, even as man, and He knew what He was about to do. Can we say that Mary delayed “the hour” for eighteen years after Jesus had begun His public ministry at twelve in the temple? Or, was part of His mission from the Father to be “subject” to His parents for so many more years a greater lesson for mankind of the unfathomable mystery of the humility of the Son of God made man? “Do whatever he tells you” was the “Woman of Genesis’,” the Co-redemptrix’s, painful way of saying, ‘indeed your hour is now come.’

This brings to mind a verse that Protestants often raise as an objection to Catholic Marian doctrine. It is their irreverent distortion of Our Savior’s reply to the woman who cried out to Him with a loud voice as He was finishing a discourse: “And it came to pass, as he spoke these things, a certain woman from the crowd, lifting up her voice, said to him: Blessed is the womb that bore thee, and the paps that gave thee suck: Yea rather,” He answered, “blessed are they who hear the word of God, and keep it” (Luke 11:27). The Latin Vulgate uses the word “quinimo,” which the Douay renders: “Yea, rather.” It could also be translated “Indeed, so” or “most manifestly so” (manifestissime) as one variant Latin MS has it. The RSV, however, deletes the crucial word “Yea,” or “Indeed,” leaving the Son’s response far less exuberant about His mother: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” From an affirmation of the “blessedness” of Our Lady’s divine maternity (Behold all generations shall call me blessed – Luke 1:48) we now end up with a negation. The Immaculate Mary not only heard the word of God, she conceived the Word and bore Him, and she kept Him, and all He said, as no other, “in her Heart.”

The Woman of Genesis

The Vulgate translation of Genesis 3:15, or what is traditionally called “the protoevangelium” (first Gospel, on account of it being the first “good news” of the Savior to come) is even more clear on the Immaculate Conception. “She shall crush thy head and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.” Her “heel” would never be under the power of the devil. He would lie in wait for the crushing from the one creature over whom he had no power. The parallelism of the couplet loses its relation of “the woman” and “she” in opposition to “thy head” and the serpent waiting for “her heel” when you translate the Hebrew as masculine in the second part. Saint Jerome had the extant Hebrew and Syrian codices before him as he did his translating in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. He was a master of the inspired languages, Greek and Hebrew, the greatest linguist in the Latin world. He would know, if not from examining the variant codices in existence in his time, then from the rabbis themselves who taught him, that the Hebrew pronoun in this text needed a feminine gender. Although he actually preferred, at first, to give the verse a masculine pronoun, he ended up choosing otherwise because the feminine “she shall crush” was the more common acceptance among the Latin fathers. In the East, Saint Ephrem, the Syrian doctor, who knew Hebrew (his native tongue, Syriac, was very close to Aramaic), also gave the couplet a feminine translation.

There is an exhaustive study by the late scholar, Brother Thomas Mary, M.I.C.M., in a book he wrote on this very subject, The Woman of Genesis, in which he proves the case for the better accuracy of the Vulgate translation. Here, I will summarize his main arguments in favor of the Vulgate, but his book of eighty pages has so much more, including a final chapter on the identification of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the “Woman clothed with the sun” in chapter twelve of the Book of Apocalypse with the “Woman” of Genesis. He also shows how the form Our Lady took  in her apparition to Saint Catherine Labouré (as we see on the Miraculous Medal) also identifies her with the “Woman” of Genesis being that she appears with her foot crushing the head of the old serpent. Brother Thomas Mary’s book is very well worth reading.

When I posted some of these arguments on a web site recently, as a comment, I received the following reply from an anonymous Latinist:

“The literal words from the New Navarre Bible [I never brought up this Catholic Bible] are, ‘Inimicitias ponam inter te et mulierem / et semen tuum et semen illius; / ipsum conteret caput tuum, / et tu conteres calcaneum eius.’ In Latin grammar (according to the Henle Latin Grammar, Nos. 128 and 134) eius is genitive singular for all three genders, masculine, feminine, and neuter, as is illius. Thus, even with a correct translation from Hebrew to Latin, the translation into English would suffer from this ambiguity without being anyone’s particular fault.”

He continues: “The verb ‘conteret’ [crush] is third person singular future for all three genders as well. Thus, a person translating into English would be confronted with the problem above.

“However, to make matters more confusing, St. Jerome, according to the Commentary of the Navarre Bible, translates the passage as ‘she [the woman] will bruise your head’; the Latin in the Navarre (from the New Vulgate) is ‘IPSUM conteret caput tuum’. Ipsum (Henle Gr. No. 138) is accusative singular masculine or neuter. The Haydock Bible commentary sheds some light on the situation: the early Church Fathers read the passage in different ways, some as ipsum (neuter, referring to the Seed, Christ), and others as ipsa (feminine, referring to the woman, Mary).

“One last note on Latin: nouns have inherent gender. ‘Seed’ is neuter; and everything dealing with the word “seed” would also be neuter (adjectives and such). So the ‘ipsum’ would agree with the “seed” as neuter, although both refer to Christ.”

My answer to the Latin Scholar

The Vulgate Latin, which was given to the Church by Saint Jerome, at Pope Damasus’ behest, has “ipsa” (she) in the second couplet of this text. This is the Vulgate that was approved as the official Catholic Bible in the mother language of the Church at the Council of Trent. Although the council did not teach that the Vulgate was an inspired translation (no translations are, not even the Old Testament Septuagint Greek) it did affirm that the Vulgate is inerrant. The Council of Trent declared it the only authentic Bible of the one true Church.

Almost all Latin fathers, Augustine, Ambrose, and others quoted this verse as “she,” ipsa conteret caput tuum (she shall crush thy head). Eastern fathers used either the neuter or the masculine (Ephrem excepted), for so it was in the Septuagint Greek. As Cornelius a Lapide points out in his exhaustive commentary, all three pronouns present an orthodox meaning. Cornelius a Lapide lived during the generation immediately after Trent.

Post Christian Jewish Testimony

One Hebrew poet of the second century, Philo, without giving the text any Messianic interpretation, rendered the verse in the feminine, i.e. Eve shall crush the serpent (after converting, I suppose). He pointed out that the poetic structure of Hebrew parallelisms demanded a feminine in the second couplet to match the first. This allows for ‘A is to B’ of the first verse to remain ‘A is to B’ in the second.  Her “heel” — in Philo’s interpretation — would be a repentant Eve, and her “seed,” a repentant mankind, her children. That was Philo. Before him, Flavius Josephus, the renowned Jewish historian, who was contemporary with Christ, quoted the verse with the feminine pronoun in both couplets. So did Moses Maimonides in the 12th century. Since the Hebrew of the Old Testament was written only with consonants and the vowels were known through hearing the oral recitation by tradition, tradition would have to supply what vowel sounds applied, which would determine the gender of nouns and perhaps, too, (just speculation as I have no knowledge of ancient Hebrew grammar) the grammatical function of the written word. Another thing about ancient Hebrew was that it has no capital letters (the original Vulgate was also written without capital Latin letters, except for the Holy Names, with no punctuation), so even knowing when to begin and end a sentence depended on oral tradition. This is all very interesting for Catholics to know, even as an apologetical argument, in refuting the Protestant position of sola scriptura (scripture alone).

To conclude. In the protoevangelium, the Greek Septuagint has autos as the subject for the second couplet, autos is the masculine nominative pronoun “he.” Jerome knew that, but he still rendered the subject feminine by using ipsa in his Latin translation of the Genesis text, basing that choice on the older Latin texts in circulation in the West, or, quite possibly, on what the rabbis of the fourth century told him were the correct vowels belonging to the Hebrew pronoun in question. All this proves that we ought to accept the Church’s pronouncement on the Vulgate given at Trent, which, although not de fide (for the canon of inspired books, it is, but not for the Vulgate translation) it still gave the Vulgate its highest non ex-cathedra seal of authority, declaring it “the Church’s only authentic Bible.” (The edition authorized by Pope Clement VIII was issued in 1592.) So, too, should faithful Catholics reverence the great work of the Douay scholars who, intending to produce as literal as possible an English translation of the Clementine Vulgate, render the controversial pronoun in the second couplet of our verse, “she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.”


The Virgin of the Apocalypse, by Miguel Cabrera (details)