Do women have an equal and at times leading role in the way Christians tell the story of redemption? Or, are women subordinated to an inferior and at times even antagonistic role in the way Christians relay the story of God’s conquest of evil?
Martin Luther spoke of Genesis 3:15 as the first gospel. In the modern NRSV God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head and you will strike his heel” (emphasis mine). Most Protestants take the above translation and the interpretation offered by Luther as a given: the serpent (the Devil) will strike the heal of the offspring of Eve, but he (Jesus) will crush the serpent all together. But, in 16th century Germany this passage was more often than not thought to refer to a female offspring of Eve, namely, Mary. The feminine interpretation of the passage stems back to the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, which was said to be translated by Jerome in the fourth century (Jerome also wrote some wild saint lives like the Life of Paul of Thebes and he also liked hanging out with and giving advice to young virgins like Eustochium). The pronoun in the Vulgate for the offspring is ipsa, which is clearly feminine. The Douay-Rheims, an English translation of the Vulgate made towards the end of the 16th century, reads: “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall bruise thy head in pieces, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel” (emphasis mine). This is what it looked like in the original (click on the below pictures to access the entire text):
The Knox Version, a modern translation of the Vulgate by Ronald Knox (who, by the way, also wrote detective novels), reads “she is to crush thy head, while thou dost lie in ambush at her heels.”
The Douay-Rheims decision to translate from the Vulgate (not Hebrew/Greek) was in reaction to Protestant translations. See, for instance, the Matthews Bible of 1537 below.
The Matthew’s Bible opted for translating the Hebrew pronoun as “it.” In 1540 the Great Bible changed the translation to “he” and signaled the passage as important with two pointing fingers in the margin.
The above examples are from Protestant English bibles; obviously Luther did not translate the bible in English. For Luther’s 1541 bible, click here (the first complete Luther Bible was in 1534). By the way, 16th century Bibles were packed with “woodcut” illustrations like the one above. In fact, the 1534 Luther Bible had somewhere around 117 pictures. For instance, scroll back a few pages on the above Luther Bible link in order to see the opening picture of God’s creation of the world.
It may also be worth noting here that the “Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures” from the fourth session of the Council of Trent in 1546 decreed that the Old Latin Vulgate was the authoritative version of Scripture. Interestingly Trent was also the first ecumenical council to make a decree regarding the composition of the entire canon of scripture, which included what Protestants today consider the OT Apocrypha (for more on this, see Jaroslav Pelikan, Whose Bible Is It?).
Most Protestants today do not know about this story in Church history, but in the 16th century this was hot stuff. The reason most seminary students, let alone parishioners, do not know about the he/she controversy of Gen. 3:15 is because the pronoun “she” in the Vulgate is seen as an interpolation of the Hebrew text. This is probably the case. But is this story merely about the original text of one word in Genesis, or are there larger gender issues at play?
Commenting on this passage towards the end of his life Luther states that Satan has misconstrued this passage by having it refer to Mary instead of the Son of God. He laments that the Latin bibles in circulation have “and she [ipsa] will crush.” Though in reality, even given the feminine pronoun, most theologians interpreted this passage as ultimately referring to the incarnation and, thus, the male Jesus. That is to say, even if the pronoun was referring to Mary, it was primarily important because it referred to Mary’s role as the theotokos, the “God-bearer,” which often gets translated “mother of God.”
A few versus earlier, while commenting on Gen. 3:1, Luther said that Satan tempted Eve instead of Adam, because Adam, being the stronger sex, would not have succumbed so easily to temptation. I will let you read Luther on this point for yourself:
Satan’s cleverness is perceived also in this, that he attacks the weak part of the human nature, Eve the woman, not Adam the man. Although both were created equally righteous, nevertheless Adam had some advantages over Eve. Just as in all the rest of nature the strength of the male surpasses that of the other sex, so also in the perfect nature the male somewhat excelled the female. Because Satan sees that Adam is the more excellent, he does not dare assail him; for he fears that his attempt may turn out to be useless. And I, too, believe that if he had tempted Adam first, the victory would have been Adam’s. He would have crushed the serpent with his foot and would have said: “Shut up! The Lord’s command was different.” Satan, therefore, directs his attack on Eve as the weaker part and puts her valor to the test, for he sees that she is so dependent on her husband that she thinks she cannot sin (LW 1:151)
Wait a minute! Luther says that if Satan had tempted Adam instead of Eve, Adam would have just gone ahead and crushed the serpent’s head right then and there. I thought that the one who would stomp on the serpent’s head was Jesus, the Son of God, not just any ordinary male, even ideal Adam. But, in this passage at least, it seems like the power to stomp on the serpent’s head in the prelapsarian (show off Latinate word for “pre-fall”) state derived from the God given glories of being male. If this is the case, then lurking behind the language debate of Gen. 3:15 there seems to also be the question of whether women as women were even capable of overcoming evil without the aid men. Even though historically we can recognize that such views of women were common in ancient world, they should be labeled as inappropriate and misogynist today.
The redemption won by the man Jesus Christ and his entourage of men is vividly portrayed in the Weimar Alterpiece by Lucas Cranach (for more on Cranach, see Steven Ozment, The Serpent and the Lamb).
The resurrected Jesus stands with his right foot on death and his left foot on the Devil while he shoves a lance of light into the Devil’s gaping mouth. The crucified Jesus is front in center whose blood hits the head of the center of the three men standing on the right. Can you guess who these figures are? On the left is John the Baptist, in the center, getting the baptism of blood, is the painter himself Lucas Cranach, and on the right is Martin Luther with his finger pointing to a specific passage of the bible. What passage is he pointing to? Could it be the protoevangelion (the first gospel) of Gen. 3:15? In the center there is a scene depicting Moses giving the law. In the back right there is Moses again with the bronze serpent from Numbers 21:4-9, which John 3:14-16 interprets as Jesus. Notice that there are no women in the painting: no wives, no moms, no daughters. Would a woman look at this painting and think, “thank God men did for us what we could not do for ourselves all the way back in the garden?”
Even though Gen. 3:15 should probably be translated with the NRSV as “he,” I have suggested that the debate surrounding the interpretation of this passage may also be entrenched in deeper gender issues. Unfortunately, Luther’s insistence that this passage be translated as “he” not “she” came after he said some pretty nasty things about the nature of women. God simply did not make women as capable as men in resisting evil. It would have been bad enough if Luther said that this is the case now after the fall into sin, but he said that this was even the case with ideal humanity in the garden.
At its worst this kind of interpretation can lead not only to the portrayal women as more susceptible to evil, but also to vilifying women as evil incarnate. Think about the beloved story of the Chronicles of Narnia in which C.S. Lewis portrayed the regime of evil as a female: the white witch who deceived Edmund with Turkish delight. Feminine darkness is overcome by masculine light through the saviors Aslan and Peter.
In conclusion, one of the ways women were given a place of power (although it was a subordinate one) in the Latin Medieval church, was through the interpretation of Gen. 3:15. I find this Catholic position beautifully captured below in the painting “Eve and Mary” by Sister Grace Remington, O.C.S.O.
*Luther’s Works, eds. Jaroslav Pelikan, Helmut T. Lehmann, and Christopher B. Brown (Saint Louise and Philadelphia: Concordia and Fortress, 1955-) [LW in reference above]