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The Douay-Rheims Latin Vulgate Translation of Gen. 3:15
Question from Dan Hunter on 12/3/2008:

In Genesis 3:15 [Douay Rheims] regarding the serpent, "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."

All modern Catholic translations are different from the Douay Rheims, but all of them basically agree with each other. "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel [NAB, '70 AND '86]

This renders a very different meaning from the Douay -Rheims version. The Jerusalem Bible takes the pronoun to be neuter, "it" [seemingly an indecisive copout]. But most take the pronoun to be masculine, referring to our Lord as the one to "bruise" or "crush", the head of the serpent, rather than "she", referring to Our Lady. Some may think this a "small" difference, but in fact it is very great indeed. For from this prophecy in the Douay-Rheims comes a longstanding Catholic tradition that toward the End of Time the Blessed Virgin Mary will crush the head of Satan, after her devotees have promoted her honor and devotion and directed countless prayers for her intercession during a long period of that time. This ancient tradition, which is based on Genesis 3:15, is in danger of being relegated to the scrap heap if we accept these non-traditional translations.

The Holy Father Blessed Pius IX wrote on this score in his bull Ineffabilis Deus, declaring the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary [December 8, 1854] stated: "Hence, just as Christ, the Mediator between God and man, assumed human nature, blotted the handwriting of the decree that stood against us, and fastened it to the cross, so the most holy Virgin, united with Him by a most intimate and indissoluble bond, was with Him and through Him, eternally at enmity with the evil serpent, and most completely triumped over him, and thus crushed his head with her immaculate foot."

With all of this in mind, why do the modern translations mistranslate the truth, and what do you think accounts for this change in meaning?

Thank you and God bless.

Answer by Colin B. Donovan, STL on 3/11/2009:

The differences result from the ambiguity of the Hebrew as to who will do the crushing and whose heel will be struck at. The pronouns in question refer to the preceding subject in the sentence; however, there are two subjects, the woman and her seed. “It” takes a neutral path (“seed” is grammatically neutral), “she” assumes that it refers to the woman, and “he” assumes that it refers to the seed, whom we know to be Jesus Christ. Jerome, perhaps based on the Septuagint, or theological considerations, we don’t know, chose to translate it is as “she”. Most modern translations choose “he”. Some translations use “it”.

When Pope John Paul II published the latest version of the Vulgate in 1999, the Latin reflects this ambiguity. It says “ipsum conteret” (he or it will crush), as does what follows “eius calcaneum” (his to its heel). While his promulgation of the Vulgate merely confirms the ambiguity of the scholarly trend, it is not one that should trouble Catholics. If the text says, “he shall crush the head of the serpent and it shall strike at his heel,” it merely affirms what the Catholic faith has always affirmed, the defeat of Satan is the work of Christ. In this, Mary’s role as his singular cooperator, as the Woman, the New Eve, is contained, not diminished. As many saints and mystics have said, her role will be uniquely important preceding the Second Coming, as it was preceding the First. That role depends on who and what she is in salvation history, and not on this text.



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