PATRISTIC INTERPRETATION OF GEN. 3:15 PT. 1

Rev. Dominic J. Unger, OFM Cap


The investigation to be undertaken in this paper is purposely restricted to those ancient Christian writers who, at least implicitly, interpreted the First-gospel (Gen. 3, 15) of Our Blessed Lady.

Was there a tradition among these early writers to the effect that, in the mind of the Divine Author, “the Woman” mentioned in that prophecy is to be identified with Mary? If so, how common was that tradition?

We shall arrange the authors chronologically as far as possible. There seems to be no reason for treating the Eastern and Western Fathers in separate groups. The Marian interpretation is found in all sections of the Church and that rather early. Besides, there seems to have been an interdependence between East and West on this matter.

Before beginning the analysis of the single writers, a few observations seem in place. First, when exegetizing the ancient Christian writers, one must be aware of the different manners in which they can express or hold a doctrine or present an interpretation. They may do so expressly, or equivalently. They may do so implicitly, or even only virtually. They hold a doctrine implicitly if they are somehow aware that their words or ideas include the further doctrine. If their words objectively could express a more developed doctrine, but they seem wholly unaware (subjectively) of that, then they cannot be invoked as witnesses of this doctrine. In this these writers differ from the inspired writers of Scripture, where the Holy Spirit is the principal Author and could have intended something contained objectively in the words, of which the Sacred Writers were not conscious. Further, the authors may be simply silent about a doctrine without denying it. Then their silence may not be used as an argument in favor of the negative side, especially if outstanding ancient Churchmen defended the positive side. Lastly, these writers may deny a doctrine virtually, or implicitly, or equivalently, or expressly. In each case one should determine which. These distinctions will help to avoid the extremes of reading too much into the Fathers and of being so cautious as to miss something they did hold implicitly.1 

That leads to a second observation. Often scholars are accused of taking an a priori approach to finding a doctrine in the Fathers. They are supposed to be so enthusiastic about finding it there that they actually do. At times the accusation may be just. But let us not forget that whether or not a doctrine is taught by a Father depends, not on the subjective enthusiasm with which one approaches the problem, but on the objective validity of the arguments presented. Moreover, unless one knows beforehand about a doctrine which is not expressly and ex professo in the Fathers one will hardly discover it there. It was only after scholars were convinced of the Immaculate Conception that they were able to discern it in the earlier Christian writers.

A third observation. When does a writer allude to a passage in Sacred Scripture? Evidently when he uses words or phrases that occur only in one place in Scripture with a well determined meaning. But I believe that besides such a word-allusion there can be an idea-allusion, that is, the idea of a passage is alluded to, not by the exact words of the passage itself, but by synonyms. Such an allusion is, of course, harder to prove. But it obtains, I think, if the idea is nowhere else in Scripture, especially if in the same context there is a word-allusion to another part of the same Scriptural passage. Examples of this will occur in the paper. Let us now examine the individual writers.2 

St. Justin Martyr

(d. ca. 163/7)

St. Justin is our first witness. He represents the Church of Palestine, Asia Minor and Rome. Three of his passages come into question, though only one of them introduces Mary. In the first, he is writing about the serpent that was raised on a tree in the desert by which the Israelites were saved.3 He explains, though, that we do not have to stake our belief on a serpent, because, as a matter of fact, God cursed the serpent in the beginning. Without telling us where that beginning is, he notes that Isaias too foretold that Christ, as the great sword, would do away with the serpent, His enemy (Is. 27, 1). But the beginning where God cursed the serpent can be no other place but Gen. 3, 14-15, to which he also alludes in his explanation of Is. 27, 1, because the term “enemy” does not occur there, though it is in Gen. 3, 15. Obviously, he is interpreting Gen. 3, 15 in a Messianic sense by the aid of Is. 27, 1. Why did he not quote Gen. 3, 15? Perhaps he took it for granted that all knew this prophecy well. Perhaps, since he used the Septuagint, which did not express the destruction of the serpent forcefully enough, he used Is. 27, 1 to interpret it. In any case, the prophecy for him seems certainly Messianic.

In his second passage, the Apologist explains how Christ is the Firstborn of God and of all creatures (cf. Col. 1, 1 5), and still He is the Son of Man, too, because He was born of Mary the Virgin. That leads him to describe how the birth of Christ from the Virgin Mary as the destroyer of the serpent is a reversal of what happened in Genesis:

And when in the commentaries of His apostles we find written that He is God’s Son, and when we say that He is the Son, we understand Him to be that …, and that He was made man from the Virgin, in order that by the very way in which disobedience, which came from the serpent, got into power, by that same way its deposition might take place. To explain, when Eve was a virgin and, incorrupt, and when she had conceived the word from the serpent, she gave birth to disobedience and death. Mary, the Virgin, contrariwise, when she had received faith and joy, gave this answer to the Angel Gabriel (who brought the glad news, namely, that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the power of the Most High would overshadow her, and therefore the Holy One who would be born of her would be the Son of God): “Be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1, 38). Of her He was born … through whom [Christ] God deposed the serpent and the angels and men who have become like him.4 

Here Christ, who was born of the Virgin, is presented as the destruction and deposition of the serpent. Is this an allusion to Gen. 3, 15? I think it is an idea-allusion for these reasons. For the antithesis of Eve and Mary he is certainly using Lk. 1, 28-38, but not only that, because there is nothing about the deposition of the serpent in that passage. That idea is found in Gen. 3, 15. Moreover, according to Justin, it was God Himself who deposed the serpent, though through Christ. That agrees with Gen. 3, 15, where God placed the enmity that would result eventually in the ruin of the serpent. Again, Justin stresses the virgin birth of Christ in the work of destroying the serpent. That combination, a virginal Child destroying the serpent, is not in Luke; it is in Gen. 3, 15, inasmuch as the Seed is presented as of the Woman only, an indication of a virginal conception. St. Irenaeus, who used Justin or the same source as Justin did, makes this point clear. Finally, there may be an allusion to the seed of the serpent when Justin tells us that Christ will destroy all the angels and men who become like the serpent. This cumulative evidence begets at least a great probability that Justin is alluding to Gen. 3, 15. Then he is taking that prophecy in a Messianic sense. And “the Woman” is the Virgin Mary; she is not Eve who is the total opposite of a virgin or a co-operator with Christ in the destruction of Satan. And then, of course, the Eve-Mary antithesis is, according to Justin, based on Gen. 3, 15 as one source.

That Christ is the destroyer of Satan’s power in Gen. 3, 15 is deducible from St. Justin’s third reference to the First-gospel. He is explaining Ps. 21 as Messianic. He calls attention to Christ’s flight into Egypt, because of Herod, and he answers the objection: Why could God not have killed Herod in the beginning?, by appealing to God’s allowing the serpent to live in the beginning:

Could not God have gotten rid also of the serpent in the beginning, so that it would not exist, rather than say: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed” (Gen. 3, 15ab)? Could He not at once have created a multitude of men? And yet, since He knew that it would be good, He created both angels and men free to do what is right, and He appointed periods of time during which He knew it would be good for them to have the exercise of free will.5 

The objector certainly implied, and Justin admits it, that God did put the serpent out of the way in Messianic times. He did not do so immediately, namely, in Gen. 3, because He created men with a free will and willed that they merit their reward by the struggle against the serpent. This enmity was foretold in Gen. 3, 15ab, as Justin notes. He does not quote Gen. 3, 15c, to the effect that the serpent was put away by Christ, but in the context of the objection that seems certainly Justin’s view. This interpretation of Justin is strengthened by the fact that he answers the objector not by any passage of Scripture where God allowed sinners to live, but by Gen. 3, 15, because precisely in this text the serpent is the enemy, the archenemy, of Christ, just as Herod is the enemy of Christ in the case that occasioned the objection. In both cases the enemy was allowed to live for the greater triumph of Christ. In any case, Justin had not forgotten that only two paragraphs before he had used Gen. 3, 15 in a Messianic sense; and so in the present case he is not interpreting the Woman’s Seed in a collective sense, to the exclusion of Christ.

To sum up. Justin sees the First-gospel as a prophecy about the enmity between Christ and Satan, and about Christ’s deposing Satan, precisely inasmuch as He was born of the Virgin Mother. Since his allusive interpretation occurs while he is speaking of the antithesis between Eve and Mary, he considers Gen. 3, 15 as one source of this antithesis. We have considered St. Justin first, not because he is so explicit on this matter, but because he was either the source of St. Irenaeus, or both got the matter from a common source. St. Irenaeus, however, holds clearly what Justin does by allusion.

St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons

(d. Ca. 200)

The Bishop of Lyons represents not only Gaul, but also Asia Minor whence he came originally, and Rome, where he traveled and had considerable contacts. He has three passages in which he cites or uses Gen. 3, 15. I have treated this matter in greater detail in Maria et Ecclesia,6 so I will not repeat here all the details. We shall start with the passage in which he quotes Gen. 3, 15 verbatim and completely:

He has, therefore, thoroughly recapitulated all things. He has engaged our enemy in battle, both dashing him to pieces— him who had led us captive in Adam in the beginning—and trampling on his head. This you have given in Genesis where God said to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed; he shall crush your head, and you shall lie in wait for his heel” (Gen. 3, 15).

To explain, ever since that time He who was to be born of the Virgin Woman, according to the likeness of Adam, was heralded as crushing the head of the serpent. That, namely, is the Offspring of whom the Apostle wrote in his letter to the Galatians: “The Law of works was enacted until the offspring should come to whom the promise was made” (Gal. 3, 19; cf. Gen. 12, 3; 18, 18; 22, 18).

He makes this still clearer in the same letter when he says:

“But when the fullness of time came, God sent His Son made of a woman” (Gal. 4, 4).

Certainly, the enemy would not have been justly conquered unless a man born of a woman had conquered him. For it was through a woman that he got dominion over man in the beginning, setting himself up in opposition to man. For that reason too the Lord confessed Himself to be the “Son of Man,” inasmuch as He recapitulated in Himself the primordial man [Adam], out of whom was made the handiwork that is according to woman …

But since He who in the beginning fashioned us and in the end sent His Son, is one and the same, the Lord perfected His commandment when He was born of a woman, and destroyed our Adversary …7 

This passage is not extant in the Greek original. But we can be certain that Irenaeus used the Greek Septuagint for Gen. 3, 15, with ‘He’ as the subject of the third clause, the ‘crush’ as the verb in the third and fourth clauses. He uses the same verb in his commentary that follows the quotation, when he writes of the Virgin’s Offspring as having been “heralded as crushing the head of the serpent.” So, when before the quotation of Gen. 3, 15 he writes about Christ as “trampling on his head,” he is not quoting Gen. 3, 15, but interpreting it. That interpretation is correct, because to “crush” the head of a serpent means to defeat it, to make it powerless, and that is done by trampling on its head, or smashing it. Irenaeus could have arrived at this interpretation by the aid of Lk. 10, 19, where Christ says He gives power to His disciples to trample on serpents; and he may have considered this Lucan passage as a virtual interpretation of Gen. 3, 15, inasmuch as Christ who gives that power to the disciples has it Himself by greater reason and independently. So, as early as the second half of the second century we find “crush your head” of the Septuagint interpreted by “trample on your head.” This will eventually become the Latin translation and the Syriac. St. Jerome will extend the meaning further to express the crushing of the head, which he claims gives the Hebrew sense better than does the Septuagint.

The general context of this passage is this: Irenaeus is explaining how Christ, by being born of a Virgin Woman, recapitulated all things and defeated Satan in a triumphant victory. We must note that the Virgin Mother plays an important role.

Who are the actors involved in this drama of recapitulation? The serpent is, of course, the Devil. And there can be no doubt that the one who dashes him to pieces and tramples on his head is Christ, as all scholars admit. But is this Offspring of the Virgin Mother Christ alone? Yes, throughout this passage Christ alone is presented as the one who conquers Satan. But even if Irenaeus were interpreting the woman’s “seed” in a collective sense, Christ would still be the principal part of it, and all others would be included in Him. It would be against the entire theology of recapitulation to think that the seed is the whole race, including Christ in a special manner.

And who is the Woman? The Bishop of Lyons does not expressly identify the Woman, but he does so equivalently. He begins his commentary on Gen. 3, 15 by stating that the one who would crush the serpent’s head, Christ, is the one who was to be born of the “Virgin Woman.” He calls her “Virgin Woman” because he is speaking of the Woman of Gen. 3, 15 just quoted, and because he considered her a virgin mother. But that can be only Mary. He makes this clearer by using Gal. 4, 4 to explain who the Seed of the Woman is. But the Woman of Gal. 4, 4, whom Irenaeus takes to be a virgin mother, is none other than Mary. Mary, then, is also the “Virgin Woman,” the Woman of Gen. 3, 15.

From another viewpoint, too, the Woman can be identified as Mary. The central doctrine of Irenaeus in this section is that of the recapitulation of all things through Christ. But that was possible only because Christ took our nature, the nature that had fallen in Adam, and He did so only through the Virgin Woman. But this recapitulation is, according to the Bishop, expressed in the First-gospel. The Woman of the First-gospel is, therefore, Mary.

We must note that in this section Irenaeus makes no mention whatever of Eve as the Woman. Moreover, elsewhere he repeatedly portrays Eve as the total antithesis of Mary.8 But then Eve cannot be this victorious Woman of Gen. 3, 15. And, equivalently, Irenaeus tells us that he bases his Eve-Mary antithesis on Gen. 3, 15 as the source of Mary’s victory. No objection can, therefore, be raised against this, because he does not quote or allude to Gen. 3, 15 when establishing the Eve-Mary antithesis. To do so in those places would have been against his policy of referring to the Old Testament for Eve and to the New Testament for Mary.

From this passage of Irenaeus we can conclude that he expressly identifies the Offspring of the Woman as Christ, and equivalently he identifies the woman as the Virgin Mother of Christ, who with Him is victorious over Satan. Virtually, then, he tells us that this victorious Woman is not Eve, who was defeated by Satan. And so Gen. 3, 15 was for him the positive side, the Marian side, of the Eve-Mary antithesis, just as it was for Christ in the Satan-Christ antithesis.

The second Irenaean passage is from the fourth book of his Adversus haereses where he explains that the Father who prepared the kingdom for the just, also prepared the furnace of fire for punishment of the wicked. That gave Irenaeus an occasion to explain how the devil fits into this picture. By means of the parable of the Wheat and the Cockle he states that Satan sowed enmity between God and man (cf. Gen. 3, 1-6); but God turned that enmity right back on Satan, placing enmity between him and men through the mediation of Christ who was to be born of a woman. This reversal of enmity Irenaeus saw predicted in the First-gospel:

Really, this Angel and Enemy has been an apostate since the day on which he envied God’s handiwork and attempted to make him God’s enemy (cf. Gen. 3, 1ff.). Wherefore, God in turn separated from fellowship with Himself him who of his own accord secretly sowed cockle, that is, who introduced the transgression. He had pity, however, on man who negligently and wickedly took upon himself the disobedience, and He turned back upon the author of the enmity that enmity by which he wished to make man God’s enemy. He did so by removing His own enmity against man, but turning it back on and setting it up again against the serpent.

That is according to what the Scripture tells us. God said to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the Woman, between your seed and her Seed. He shall crush your head, and you shall lie in wait for his heel” (Gen. 3, 1 5).

This enmity the Lord recapitulated in Himself by being made man from a woman (cf. Gal. 4, 4), and by trampling on his head (Gen. 3, 15c), as we have shown in the preceding book.9 

This text is extant in Greek in a Catena. It agrees with the Latin version, except for a small point that is immaterial in our question. But the quotation of Gen. 3, 15 in Latin has calcabit. That does not mean that Irenaeus had the corresponding word in Greek. He quoted here as elsewhere from the Septuagint and wrote ‘crush.’ But here as elsewhere Irenaeus interprets ‘crush’ by “trample on,” and so it was easy for the Latin translator to insert “trample on” in the quotation of Gen. 3, 15, according to what some of the Old Latin translations had.

Again, who are the actors in Gen. 3, 15 according to this passage? There is no doubt that Christ is the Woman’s Seed. He is the Recapitulator of the enmity of the devil. This recapitulation took place by Christ’s being born of a woman, according to the language of Gal. 4, 4. That way he trampled on the serpent’s head, according to the First-gospel, to which the Bishop certainly alludes here, and which he interprets as a trampling on the serpent. Christ alone is the Seed of the Woman, but all men share in His victory over Satan, because He recapitulated them by His birth from the Virgin.

Irenaeus sees, however, in the First-gospel, not merely Christ’s victory over Satan, in clause c, but His birth from the Virgin Woman, in clause b, and her enmity against Satan, in clause a. The cryptic sentence: “This enmity the Lord recapitulated in Himself by being made man from a woman, and by trampling on the serpent’s head,” is a concise but complete interpretation of the First-gospel in a Christological and Mariological sense. His allusion to Gal. 4, 4, as well as the whole context makes it certain that Mary is the Woman, and not Eve; and she is a Virgin Mother. Eve is not a virgin mother, and she contributed nothing to the work of recapitulation, to which this Woman contributed by her physical and moral virginal motherhood in relation to Christ. Mary, and she alone, is the necessary instrument of the recapitulation through Christ.

The third passage of the Bishop of Lyons to be considered is in the Third Book. There he wishes to show that God was merciful toward Adam. As a proof of this he refers to the First-gospel, which he does not quote verbatim, but condenses in his own words and then interprets it.

With this in mind, He put enmity between the serpent and the woman together with her Offspring, who would observe each other (cf. Gen. 3, 15).

The one is he whose sole would be bitten (cf. Gen. 3, 15d), and who would have power to trample on the head of His enemy (Gen. 3, 15c); the other is he who would bite and kill and hinder the steps of man until the Offspring predestined to trample on his head would come, who was Mary’s Child (cf. Gen. 3, 15c).

Of Him the prophet said: “You shall tread upon the asp and basilisk, and shall trample upon the lion and the dragon” (Ps. 90, 13). By this he pointed out that sin, together with death that held sway, because it set itself up and spread abroad against man, and made him cold, would be deprived of its dominion; and that the lion, that is, the Antichrist, who would rush upon the human race, would be trampled on by Him in the last times; and He would bind the dragon, that ancient serpent (cf. Apoc. 20, 2), and make it subject to the dominion of man, who had been conquered, so man could trample on all his [devil’s] power (cf. Luke. 10, 19)10 

For this the Greek original is again missing. But there are no difficulties that would make us doubt the Latin as a very literal translation. Who are the persons involved in the First-gospel? Irenaeus condenses the last part of the prophecy thus: “who would observe each other.” Some authors have concluded, incorrectly, that he means that the woman would crush the serpent, and the seed of the woman would crush the seed of the serpent, and vice versa, as is expressed in the First-gospel. But Irenaeus condensed the text to suit his purpose. He said God placed enmity between the serpent on the one side and the Woman and her Offspring on the other. These observe each other: the offspring of the serpent is not included, except inasmuch as it is part of the serpent himself.

The Seed of the Woman is described as “the one whose sole would be bitten” (Gen. 3, 15d), and “who would have power to trample on the head of His enemy” (Gen. 3, 15c), and as “the seed what would come” (Gal. 3, 19), which was “predestined to trample on his head” (Gen. 3, 15c). Then he identifies this Seed expressly by saying it is “Mary’s Child.”

The function of this Child is to “crush the head of the serpent,” which Irenaeus interprets here too as a trampling on the serpent’s head. The victory described in the rest of the paragraph makes it clear that it is Christ who “crushed” the serpent’s head and “trampled on” it.11 

The Bishop does not speak of two Offsprings of the Woman. Some claim that the phrase “the one, whose sole would be bitten” and the phrase about man’s steps being hindered, refer to man in general, to all the offspring of Eve, which would be “observed” by the serpent. The other is Christ, the Seed predestined to trample on the serpent’s head.12 That is not correct. For Irenaeus the one whose sole would be bitten is the same as the one who would trample on the serpent’s head, Mary’s Child. We showed above that Irenaeus does not admit Eve in the First-gospel. She brought ruin and death to all her children. The Woman of the First-gospel is the necessary instrument of salvation, and that by a virginal motherhood relative to the Recapitulator. If the Woman’s Seed included all believers in Christ, or even the rest of mankind, they would have to be Mary’s children, not Eve’s.

Besides, St. Irenaeus expressly identifies the Seed of the Woman as Mary’s Child. That is an equally express identification of Mary as the Virgin Mother, as the Woman. Moreover, in the context the Virgin Mother was necessary for the “just” destruction of the serpent, because through her the predestined Seed had human nature. Here too St. Irenaeus’ explanation of Gen. 3, 15 supposes the doctrine of recapitulation. So, if Christ justly recapitulated us, he had to be born of a virgin mother. That is why Irenaeus introduces her in this explanation, though very cryptically, in the expression “who was Mary’s Child.” That, too, is why in the beginning when he condenses the First-gospel in his own words, he tells us that God “put enmity between the serpent and the woman, together with her Offspring.” The Woman is in an important role against Satan. And she is included also in the phrase “who would observe each other.” The Woman and her Child would observe the serpent, and vice versa. Hers is a dynamic enmity that, together with and through her Child, resulted in the serpent’s head being trampled on, in complete victory over him.

To sum up. It is clear that Irenaeus expressly identifies the Seed of the Woman as Christ, and Christ only, though other men share in His victory, since He recapitulated them. He interprets the Woman of the First-gospel as a virgin mother, which he corroborates with Gal. 4, 4. Thus he, at least equivalently, identifies Mary as the Woman. But he also expressly says the Seed is Mary’s Child, and so Mary is the Woman. The First-gospel is an expression of Christ’s work of recapitulation, in which His Virgin Mother played an important, a necessary part, and in which Eve played no part whatever. In this work she was the total opposite of Mary, the Woman in the First-gospel. Irenaeus also used Gen. 3, 15 as the source for the Marian part in the Eve-Mary antithesis.

Having analyzed the texts of St. Justin and St. Irenaeus, it seems proper to note that this analysis substantiates the statement of Pope Pius XII in his Apostolic Constitution on the Assumption that ever since the second century the Fathers are witnesses to the doctrine that the New Eve was associated intimately with the New Adam in the struggle against the infernal foe and in the victory over him, as was foretold in the First-gospel.13 

St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage

(d. 258)

St. Cyprian represents the Church of the West in Africa in the first half of the third century. He quotes Is. 7, 10-15, including the famous prophecy about the virgin birth of Emmanuel, and then continues:

God had foretold that this Seed would come forth from a woman, the Seed, namely, that would trample on the head of the Devil. It was in Genesis: “Then God said to the serpent:… I will put enmities between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall crush your head, and you shall lie in wait for his heel” (Gen. 3, 14-15).14 

The Bishop here expressly identifies the virgin Child of Is. 7, 14 with the Seed of the Woman in Gen. 3, 15. He therefore considers Gen. 3, 15 Messianic, and obviously, takes the Woman as the Mother of Christ, Mary. Moreover, by comparing Is. 7, 14 with Gen. 3, 15 he admits that “her Seed” is indicative of a virgin motherhood. The Woman, therefore, can not be Eve. In Africa, then, in the middle of the third century we have the same clear Marian as well as Christological explanation of the First-gospel as at the end of the second century in Gaul.

Serapion, Bishop of Thmuis

(d. after 362)

Serapion was Bishop in Lower Egypt and a friend of St. Anthony the Hermit and of St. Anthanasius, from whom he received several important letters. A fragment, seemingly from a work on the Hexaëmeron, was known till recently only in a Latin translation in a Catena. Laurentin found the Greek original in the Vatican library. Here are the Bishop’s words:

The woman does not have seed; only man does. How then was that (Gen. 3, 15ab) said of the Woman? Is it not evident that there is here question of Christ, whom the holy Virgin brought forth without seed? As a matter of fact, the singular is used, “of the seed,” and not the plural, “of the seeds.”15 

The Bishop holds very clearly that the Woman is Mary, and he identifies her by the fact that she must be a virgin mother. This early Christian writer, too, in Egypt, sees the virgin motherhood foretold in the First-gospel.

St. Ephraem, Deacon of Syria

(d. 376)

St. Ephraem, that shining light of the early Church in Syria, unmistakably favors the Marian as well as the Christological interpretation. Much work needs to be done yet on the authenticity of some of his writings. But in the works that are surely genuine, his mind on the question is clear.

In one of his poems he sang:

Truly you [Lord] and your Mother are the only ones who are absolutely and completely beautiful, for there is no guilt in you, Lord, nor any stain in your Mother . . .. Adam did not engender you, who dared to transgress the law, nor did his son who unjustly and without cause killed his brother. You are the children of the Holy Spirit …

The Devil came, raging very much—he who was cursed seven times; and his spirit was still elated, though Mary’s Son trampled on him sorely, for he is a serpent who, though crushed, still attacks. But it is wiser for me [death] to lie low on the ground and adore this Jesus who conquered me by His cross).16 

In place of the Septuagint ‘crush’ we have here ‘trample on’, which is not an interpretation as it was in the Greek Fathers, because Ephraem read ‘trample on’ in his Syriac version of the Bible. But like the Greek, the Syriac has “he” as subject of the trampling. In his interpretation St. Ephraem introduces the idea of crushing. Since it is “Mary’s Son” who trampled on the serpent, Mary is surely the Woman of the First-gospel, as the Seed is the Son of Mary. St. Ephraem seems here to depend on St. Ireneaus.

In a sermon on the Nativity of Jesus, the Deacon has this word of encouragement:

Eve looks up cheerfully already now, because she will see the day when her Offspring, the Author of Life, descends to raise up the dead mother [Eve] of His own Mother [Mary]. The adorable Child smashed the serpent’s head, by whose poison the Woman of old was infected and perished.17 

The allusion to Gen. 3, 15 is beyond doubt. A serpent’s head is smashed by the divine Child of a mother who can be only Mary. “Smashed” is but a poetic synonym for ‘trampled on.’

In another sermon on the Lord, the Singer of Our Lady has this explanation:

Our Lord, however, was trampled on by death, but He in turn crushed it as a path [cf. Gen. 3, l5cd] … So, since death could not devour Him without a body, and the lower regions II gravel could not swallow Him up without flesh, He came to the Virgin, that, having taken a chariot from her, He might ride to the lower regions . . .. So [death] came to Eve, the mother of all the living. She is the vineyard, of which death opened the fence with the very hands of Eve, that she might taste its fruit; hence, Eve, the mother of all the living, became the source of death for all the living. But Mary flowered as the new vine instead of the old vine Eve, and the new Life, Christ, dwelt in her.18 

That Christ crushed death, but that death trampled on Christ, is a certain use of, a word-allusion to, Gen. 3, l5cd. Death is but a synonym for the serpent. Mary is the Mother of Christ, who crushed the serpent, so she is the Woman. Eve is not that Woman. Eve is presented as the total opposite of Mary, of the Woman of Gen. 3, 15. It is clear from this that St. Ephraem, too, based the Eve-Mary antithesis on the First-gospel as one source for Mary’s role.

In a second hymn on the Nativity, the Syrian Singer has this new note:

The Lord said that he [Satan] had fallen from heaven (Luke 10, 18). That accursed one had exalted himself but he was cast down from his high place (Apoc. 12, 7-9). The foot of Mary trampled on him who had struck at Eve with the heel. Blessed is He who laid him low by His birth.19 

Again we have a certain allusion to the First-gospel in “trampling on” the devil. True, the first line is a reference to Christ’s statement in Lk. 10, 18; and since in Lk. 10, 19 Christ speaks of giving power to the Apostles to “trample on” serpents, there may be an allusion to this verse here. But since this passage is itself an equivalent expression of Christ’s power to trample on the serpent and an allusion to Gen. 3, 15, Ephraem’s allusion would go back to Gen. 3, 15 in any case. That is strengthened by the fact that Christ is said to do the trampling on Satan by His birth, evidently, by His virginal birth from Mary. This is an idea-allusion to the “Seed of the Woman.” Moreover, Mary’s presence here— it is Mary’s foot that tramples on the serpent—makes the reference to Gen. 3, 15 certain, because she is nowhere in sight in Lk. 10, 19. But “Mary’s foot,” I would guess, is Christ, who took his human nature from her, and through whom she was able to trample on Satan. Hence, this passage is not an argument in favor of the feminine pronoun in his Bible. It seems quite probable that Ephraem is alluding to Apoc. 12, 7-9 when he speaks of the Devil’s having been cast down. These cumulative notes leave little doubt that we have here a certain use of Gen. 3, 15 in the Mariological and Christological sense; and that the Eve-Mary antithesis is rooted in Gen. 3, 15.

In a hymn on the Blessed Mother we find the same interpretation:

Let the great Adam who had been struck by the serpent rejoice with Mary. She gave to Adam a vine [Christ], by which when He was nourished He crushed the cursed asp and recovered from its deadly bite …

Eve and the Serpent dug a ditch and threw Adam headlong into it. But Mary and her kingly Child opposed themselves [to them] and, having descended, drew him out of the abyss by this occult mystery, which, when it was made known to Adam, gave him life.

The virginal vine [Mary] gave the grape [Christ], whose sweet wine brought solace to those who were weeping. Eve and Adam, afflicted by sorrow, tasted the medicine of life and found solace in it for their tears.20 

The knowledge of the Incarnation brought solace to Adam and Eve; that must have been during their lifetime. But the only place where anything was revealed to them that might have some connection with the Incarnation, with a virginal mother and her victorious Child, is Gen. 3, 15. There is here an allusion to that First-gospel. The fact that in the first verse here quoted Adam crushes the serpent’s head, simply means that he could do so after having been nourished on Christ, who is therefore the principal crusher of Satan. Adam shares in Christ’s victory; but Christ is the Seed of the Woman, Mary. We must note again that Mary is the opposite of Eve, and this antithesis is revealed in Gen. 3, 15, with Mary as the virginal, victorious Woman.

A final passage from a second hymn on the Virgin:

In Mary the bowed head of Eve was raised; because Mary received the Infant who apprehended the asp, the leaves of ignominy have been swallowed up in glory.21 

He continues for a number of verses contrasting Eve and Mary, with Mary effecting the opposite of Eve, with Mary undoing Eve’s sin and its effects, as is expressed already in the verse quoted. This verse is an idea-allusion to Gen. 3, 15. The apprehension of the asp is a poetic expression of the serpent’s being trampled on or crushed. Mary’s Infant does that, and He is the Seed of the Woman. The Eve-Mary antithesis is again rooted in the First-gospel. Mary is even Eve’s Mediatress.

The mind of St. Ephraem is, therefore, very clear and certain. The Woman of Gen. 3, 15 is a virginal mother, and she is that in regard to Christ, who is her Seed. Together they are not only at enmity with Satan, but they triumph over him completely and save Adam and Eve and the whole race. The First-gospel is without doubt a springboard for the Eve-Mary antithesis. And this interpretation of St. Ephraem is not contradicted or even weakened if in other works of his he accommodates the prophecy to a moral explanation.22 

We may add here that members of the school of St. Ephraem wrote a number of hymns in imitation of those of the Saint, expressing the same interpretation of Gen. 3, 15 as he did.23 

More to come in the second part of this paper: PATRISTIC INTERPRETATION OF GEN. 3:15 PT. 2.

3 thoughts on “PATRISTIC INTERPRETATION OF GEN. 3:15 PT. 1

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