Monday, September 28, 2009

A Note on the Translation of Gen 3:15

A Roman Catholic deacon, in a talk I heard yesterday, asserted that the usual English translations of Gen 3:15b, "He/it shall bruise your head," are mistaken. The proper translation, he said, was "she shall bruise your head," and refers allegorically to the Virgin Mary.

I checked this when I got home and the Hebrew clearly says הוא ישופך ראש, "he/it will bruise your head." Whence the good deacon's assertion? The Septuagint also clearly uses the masculine form. But the Vulgate says ipsa conteret, "she will bruise." A little research turned up a boatload of comment on this reading (a controversy of which I had been until yesterday completely unaware). The RC Douay Rheims translation follows this reading. However, the Nova Vulgata, the revised Latin version authorized by the Vatican now reads ipsum conteret, "it will bruise." This is no doubt correct in terms of the original text; nor can I believe that St. Jerome's original translation of the Hebraica veritas was anything but ipsum.

What amazed me in the literature was the fierceness of the opposing sides. Apparently in a previous age, up to the 19th century, the question of Gen 3:15 seemed to both RC and Protestant to involve crucial questions, and that to retreat amounted to surrendering a key point. But there could only be one outcome to the debate, and the RC church has accepted it, recognizing, I think, that its claims about Mary are not really at risk in the question of the translation of this verse. Nevertheless, I can tell you that at some levels, among the laity, the old debate is still very much alive.

UPDATE: Translation of ipsum corrected to neuter, with thanks to Scott Johnson.


Jim Janknegt said...

The theological point of Mary bruising the serpent's head is the subject of many works of art.I have been aware of the accurate translation but find it difficult to give up the symbolism. I have used the image myself in my work.

Palimpsest said...

Welcome to the crazy world of Catholic allegorical interpretation without any checks and balances. The problem seems to be solved at least in part by documents and the Catechism saying all others senses (like the allegorical) must be based on the literal (the authorial intention), but not all have figured out how this is done or bother to apply it.
A favorite of mine is to start a class with Jer 44:17, ask my Catholic students who this is, the answer is always Mary. Then I tell them they a reading this passage with a Catholic lens but reading it contrary to how the Church teaches proper exegesis. This makes a good intro to what Church documents have said about exegesis

Ed said...

Scott Johnson tells me (quite rightly) that ipsum is neuter, not masculine, and that therefore it must be translated "it," not "he." The antecedent would be the neuter semen.

jcowan said...

Mumpsimus rules in such matters.

Suburbanbanshee said...

I believe it's been shown that, depending on how you mark the Hebrew text, you get the one meaning or the other. But I'm just vaguely remembering this, and I don't know Hebrew.

Here's the old Catholic Encyclopedia, noting some various iterations:

The first prophecy referring to Mary is found in the very opening chapters of the Book of Genesis (iii, 15): "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." This rendering appears to differ in two respects from the original Hebrew text: first, the Hebrew text employs the same verb for the two renderings "she shall crush" and "thou shalt lie in wait"; the Septuagint renders the verb both times by terein, to lie in wait; Aquila, Symmachus, the Syriac and the Samaritan translators, interpret the Hebrew verb by expressions which mean to crush, to bruise; the Itala renders the verb teoein employed in the Septuagint by the Latin "servare", to guard; St. Jerome (Quest. hebr. in Gen., P.L., XXIII, col. 943) maintains that the Hebrew verb has the meaning of "crushing" or "bruising" rather than of "lying in wait", "guarding". Still in his own work, which became the Latin Vulgate, the saint employs the verb "to crush" (conterere) in the first place, and "to lie in wait" (insidiari) in the second. Hence the punishment inflicted on the serpent and the sergent's retaliation are expressed by the same verb: but the wound of the serpent is mortal, since it affects his head, while the wound inflicted by the serpent is not mortal, being inflicted on the heel. The second point of difference between the Hebrew text and our version concerns the agent who is to inflict the mortal wound on the serpent: our version agrees with the present Vulgate text in reading "she" (ipsa) which refers to the woman, while the Hebrew text reads hu' (autos, ipse) which refers to the seed of the woman. According to our version and the Vulgate reading, the woman herself will win the victory; according to the Hebrew text, she will be victorious through her seed. In this sense does the Bull "Ineffabilis" ascribe the victory to Our Blessed Lady. The reading "she" (ipsa) is neither an intentional corruption of the original text, nor is it an accidental error; it is rather an explanatory version expressing explicitly the fact of Our Lady's part in the victory over the serpent, which is contained implicitly in the Hebrew original. The strength of the Christian tradition as to Mary's share in this victory may be inferred from the retention of "she" in St. Jerome's version in spite of his acquaintance with the original text and with the reading "he" (ipse) in the old Latin version.