The term Proto-evangelium, meaning "the first gospel or good news," is traditionally applied to Gn 3.15 where God curses the serpent who had just enticed the first woman to break His commandment. It reads:
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.
Christian tradition has seen in this passage the first announcement of the salvation to come. However, there is much disagreement among modern exegetes about its exact interpretation. Five problems are involved in the dispute: the Vulgate translation, the identity and significance of the serpent, the identity of the woman and her descendants, the meaning of the key word šûp, and the use of this verse in Christian tradition.
Vulgate Translation. The translation of Gn 3.15 has been a source of difficulty in the past. The pronoun "he" in the CCD construes the Hebrew pronoun hû' which refers to "her seed" and could be translated as "it" (ipsum ), or, since it relates back to a collective noun, as "they." In the LXX, because of a more specific development of messianic ideas, hû' was translated by the masculine pronoun α[symbol omitted]τός, although the antecedent Greek noun is neuter. This may be an intended reference to the Messiah who would "grasp" the head of the serpent. Finally, in the Vulgate as it is now, hû' is translated by ipsa, "she," although the Old Latin versions have ipse, "he" (very likely the original Vulgate reading too). Whether by scribal error or intent, the ipsa, referring to the woman, later called Eve (Gn 3.20), has greatly influenced the Latin tradition concerning this passage. It agrees with no other version and is certainly wrong. Latin theologians, however, have constantly evoked from this mistranslation the picture of Mary Immaculate crushing the head of the serpent in her role as the new Eve.
The Serpent. The serpent (nāḥāš ) is clearly described as an enemy of God and man, an evil personal force who entices the woman to break the single covenant law of paradise. He is later identified as the devil or the adversary or satan in Wis 2.24 (see also Jn 8.4; Rv 12.9;20.2; Jb 1.6) and in the whole of Christian tradition. The reason for using this image for God's archenemy is found in the complex serpent symbolism of the ancient Near East. The primary symbolism comes from the Canaanite fertility cults, which have left to us many representations of fertility goddesses with serpents in their hands or entwined around their bodies. Serpents were also thought to have magical qualities and were often deified by Israel's neighbors. Because of his enticement, the serpent is cursed by God and condemned to a continual battle with the descendants of the woman. Thus, the Canaanite cults of nature worship, fertility rites, and magic, which were a constant temptation to Israel, are condemned by the sacred author.
The Woman. Most independent authors reject any allusion to Mary in our text. Catholic scholars, however, are generally of the opinion that, behind the literal sense, some Mariological meaning is to be found in either a typical or fuller sense. (see hermeneutics, biblical)
From the context it is clear that the woman is the one who has just committed the first sin. She is the first man's ’iššâ, woman or wife (Gn 2.23). Obviously, therefore, the image of Mary has been found in our text only because of some hidden signification not patent there.
Although the LXX has taken the seed of the woman as a male individual, the Hebrew word is collective and refers to all mankind, the woman's offspring. The enmity, therefore, will be between the serpent and the woman and between their races. Both groups will be injured, but not equally.
The Key Word. In Gn 3.15b of the CCD the verbs "crush" and "lie in wait" are traditional translations from the Vulgate of the same word šûp, the meaning of which is obscure in the three places it occurs in the MT—here, Jb 9.17; Ps 138 (139).11. It would seem preferable to use an identical verb in both clauses as does the LXX and many modern versions, such as, "grasp," "bruise," or "strike." Nevertheless, because of the relative position of the "attackers," one striking at the head, the other at the heel, we are left to infer that the woman's seed will be victorious. This inference is strengthened by the fact that the verse is found in the malediction of the serpent. If man were not victorious, would not the serpent's punishment be incomplete? And so many have seen here a promise that man will triumph over the serpent's evil power.
Christian Tradition. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ, "born of a woman" (Gal 4.4), is proclaimed as the definitive victor over "the prince of the world" by His Passion, Death, and Resurrection (Jn 12.31; 16.11; 1 Jn 3.8). St. Paul describes an antithetical relationship between Adam and Christ (Rom. 5.12–19) which later suggested a similar antithesis between Eve and Mary. Many Fathers of the Church contrasted Eve, who brought sin and death into the world, with Mary who gave birth to the victor over sin and, thus, became the mother of all those alive in Christ. These Fathers did not use Gn 3.15 to support their thesis because they saw no reference to Mary there. It was only after the sixth century, because of the erroneous Vulgate reading, that Latin writers made frequent use of the Proto-evangelium to express Mary's victory over evil and the devil.
Some theologians argue that, since Gn 3.15 has been used in a Mariological sense in the encyclicals Ineffabilis Deus of Pius IX and Munificentissimus Deus and Fulgens corona of Pius XII, the literal sense must apply to Mary. However, these documents refer to the traditional Latin interpretation of Gn 3.15 as a witness of the common belief that Mary conquered all sin in her Immaculate Conception. They do not intend to settle all questions concerning the literal meaning of the text.
As Biblical studies advance, the question of the Proto-evangelium will receive new clarification and will, no doubt, be extended to other texts of the third chapter of Genesis that reveal God's loving concern for His creatures even after they had sinned.
Bibliography: j. coppens, "Le Protoévangile," Ephemerides theologicae Lovanienses 26 (1950) 5–36. b. rigaux, "La Femme et son lignage dans Genèse III, 14–15," Revue biblique 61 (1954) 321–348. g. lambert, "Le Drame du jardin d'Eden," Nouvelle revue théologique 76 (1954) 917–948, 1044–72. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 1945–48. x. m. le bachelet, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 1903—50) 7.1: 849–861. p. f. ceuppens, De Mariologia Biblica (Rome 1951).
[d. a. panella]