What is the Protoevangelium?


What is the very first prophesy in human history? What or who is it about?

As you might imagine, it is probably pretty important. The first prophesy occurs in Genesis 3, in a single verse called the Proto-Evangelium.

What is the Protoevangelium? What is the meaning of the Protoevangelium? The Protoevangelium is the single verse, Genesis 3:15, below:


What is the Protoevangelium or "First Gospel"?

This single verse, Genesis 3:15, is called the "Proto-Evangelium," which means "First Gospel." This one verse is the first mention of the Gospel in Scripture, and it occurs right after the Fall of Adam and Eve. Not only that, it's an encapsulation -- the "seed" -- of the entire Gospel.

There is a summary of the Gospel hidden right here in this short verse. This means that God knew His plan to redeem all mankind from the very beginning, and said so.

Incredible! The Three Prophesies of the Protoevangelium

Not only does Genesis 3:15 contain prophesies of Christ, it also provides three distinct prophesies of the Blessed Virgin Mary that every Catholic should know

Take a second to think about that. This was written thousands of years before Mary's birth. How inexpressibly amazing is it that this verse would contain prophesies of her life? 

Also, how amazing is that that God would hinge all history on the life of a Nazarene peasant girl and her willingness to say yes? What a miracle! As Mary did, just ponder that in the silence of your heart. 


Where is the Protoevangelium in the Bible?

Where does this verse appear in Scripture? This verse immediately follows the fall of Adam and Eve after their temptation by the serpent. God addresses each one in turn -- the serpent, Eve, and Adam (as well as the New Eve and the New Adam). Genesis 3:15 is actually part of God's address to the serpent. 

There is quite a lot happening in these four lines. Let's break it down, piece by piece, prophesy by prophesy:  

Who's Who in the Protoevangelium - Protoevangelium Infographic

There are a lot of pronouns in the Protoevangelium. This can get confusing. We need to identify who is who. Who is "I", "you/her", "the woman", "your", "he/his", etc.? All these pronouns can get tricky.

To explain Who's Who, I've made the following infographic:


Or, if plain text is clearer to you, I've inserted names into the verse below and alongside the pronouns:

I [God] will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman [Mary],
and between your [the serpent's] seed and her [Mary's] seed;
he [Jesus] shall bruise your [the serpent's] head,
and you [the serpent] shall bruise his [Jesus'] heel.

God is speaking to Eve, Adam, and the serpent, but "the woman" is not Eve. It is Mary. This part will be explained more fully below in the "Immaculate Conception" section.

For now, notice that God says He "will put emnity". God uses the future tense, not present. "The woman" will be a future woman, not the present woman, Eve. Remember, also, that Jesus refers to his mother as "woman" in the New Testament, specifically at the Wedding in Cana.

Who is the Serpent in the Protoevangelium?

Your gut probably tells you that the serpent is none other than Satan, himself. This is correct. Nevertheless, Scripture confirms this interpretation. Revelation 12 depicts a scene between a "woman" and the "dragon", and refers to the dragon as "that ancient serpent" (Rev 12:9). And yes, that means the serpent of Genesis is actually a dragon - more on that here.

And yes, Revelation speaking of the "woman" and the "serpent" together is extremely significant. Revelation 12 is, in many ways, the sister chapter to Genesis 3, the former fulfills the later.


Who is the "Serpent's Seed" in Genesis 3:15, the Protoevangelium? 

There are multiple interpretations here. The two most common understandings are either (1) the anti-Christ or (2) those who have made covenant with Satan, which could be Cain and his descendants or basically any evil or sinful person. Ultimately, the serpent's seed are those who stand in opposition to the Messiah.

WARNING: CREEPY - What about that strange-looking baby Satan is holding in the Passion of the Christ movie?

In the Passion of the Christ movie, Mel Gibson includes a very literal, visceral interpretation of the "Serpent's Seed". It is pretty disturbing and effective visually.

Satan is shown holding a baby. It appears Satan is mocking the Virgin Mary as she watches her own child, Jesus, being beaten and tortured. 


There are several reasons why this scene in the Passion movie is so disturbing. The biggest one may be that it's not a child that Satan is holding. It is a dwarf. Also, Satan is portrayed by a woman. It is all very off-putting and effective. 

Who is the "Woman"? Where is the Virgin Mary in the Protoevangelium? 

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 411, the Virgin Mary has long been understood to be "the woman": 

Many Fathers and Doctors of the Church have seen "the woman" announced in the "Proto-evangelium" as Mary, the mother of Christ, the "new Eve". Mary benefited first of all and uniquely from Christ's victory over sin: she was preserved from all stain of original sin and by a special grace of God committed no sin of any kind during her whole earthly life.

The Catechism is here citing Ineffabilis Deus, the papal encyclical of Pope Pius IX (DS 2803), as well as the Council of Trent (DS 1573).

But how is this the Virgin Mary? Why is it not Eve? And does that mean the first prophesy in human history is about the Virgin Mary? 

The Prophesies of the Protoevangelium

There are actually three prophesies in this short verse: (1) The Prophesy of the Immaculate Conception, (2) The Virgin Birth, and (3) the Passion and Death of Christ. 

Here is a great overview of all this from Dr. Brant Pitre:




Here is a breakdown of the three prophesies contained in the Protoevangelium:

PROTO-EVANGELIUM PROPHESY #1: IMMACULATE CONCEPTION

What about that strange word, "enmity"? Enmity, according to Google, means "the state or feeling of being actively opposed or hostile to someone or something." We might think of "enmity" as the opposite of "amity" or "amicable". In short, "enmity" means ENEMIES.

There will be a woman. This woman will be the enemy of Satan. Who is this woman?

God says He "will put emnity between [the serpent] and [the woman]." Clearly, "the woman" cannot be Eve, because she has already succumbed to serpent's wiles and temptations. Eve gave into the serpent by eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. There is no longer enmity or conflict between Eve and the serpent, because, unfortunately, they are allies according to the wages of sin. With her openness to sin, Eve is no longer opposed to Satan.

If "the woman" is not Eve, who is she? 

There "will" come "the woman" who will be the enemy of Satan. She will be opposed to Satan from the moment of her conception. She will have been conceived without sin. The Original Sin of Adam and Eve will hold no sway over this woman. 

This woman is, of course, the Immaculate Conception: the Virgin Mary.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Immaculate Conception (Paragraph 4091):

Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, "full of grace" (Luke 1:28) through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.

Pope Pius IX stated the above in Ineffabilis Deus, the 1854 apostolic constitution defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (DS 2803).

Pope Pius IX Ineffabilis Deus: Supreme Reason for the Privilege [of the Immaculate Conception]: The Divine Maternity

Even apart from the Biblical basis for the Immaculate Conception in Genesis 3:15, there is a logical basis for it. Here is the statement of the logical basis for the Immaculate Conception from Ineffabilis Deus:

And indeed it was wholly fitting that so wonderful a mother should be ever resplendent with the glory of most sublime holiness and so completely free from all taint of original sin that she would triumph utterly over the ancient serpent. To her did the Father will to give his only-begotten Son — the Son whom, equal to the Father and begotten by him, the Father loves from his heart — and to give this Son in such a way thhat he would be the one and the same common Son of God the Father and of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was she whom the Son himself chose to make his Mother and it was from her that the Holy Spirit willed and brought it about that he should be conceived and born from whom he himself proceeds.[1]

St. Irenaeus and the Connection between Eve and Mary

Saint Irenaeus states the knot tied by Eve's disobedience was undone by the obedience of the New Eve, who is Mary. The "Ave Maria" reverses the sin of "Eva" ("Ave" spelled backwards). Mary's YES to God that she will bear the Christ child is an act of open hostility to Satan. Mary's YES is an act of war or ... ENMITY.


PROTO-EVANGELIUM PROPHESY #2: THE VIRGIN BIRTH

The words "virgin" or "birth" are no where mentioned in the above verse, so how can the Protoevangelium possibly foretell the birth of the Messiah by a virgin? It's all in just two words: "her seed", meaning Mary's seed.

Okay, but how does that mean virgin birth?

Everywhere else in Scripture, a child is referred to as his father's seed. For example, Jesus is called the "seed of David" (cf. Romans 1:3), because his great-great-great-(...)-grandfather was King David. Or, take Jeremiah 33:26, in which the whole nation of Israel is referred to as the "seed of Jacob."

Referring to Jesus as his mother's seed, i.e. "her seed", means the child will have no biological father. In other words, a "virgin birth." There was no physical seed of man at Jesus' conception. Thus, it is foretold that the Messiah would be born of a virgin.

This Virgin Birth interpretation is confirmed by several of the early Church Fathers, including Serapion, the Bishop of Thmuis. Serapion was Bishop in Lower Egypt in the 4th century AD. He was a friend of St. Anthony the Hermit and of St. Anthanasius, from whom he received several important letters.

Serapion wrote the following in one such letter:[2]

The woman does not have seed, only man does. How then was that (Gen 3:15) 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."

Serapion holds very clearly that the Woman is Mary. Moreover, Serapion 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 Protoevangelium.[2] 

PROTO-EVANGELIUM PROPHESY #3: DEFEAT OF SATAN BY THE MESSIAH 

The next prophesy is that the son of "the woman", i.e. Mary's son, will bruise the head of the seed of "the serpent." In doing so, however, Mary's son will also be wounded in the heel.

What does all this mean? Basically, it means that Jesus will defeat Satan, but in doing so, Jesus will die. That's always the price of the serpent's bite. This is a prophesy, therefore, of Christ's passion, death, and ultimate victory.

But it goes even deeper than this. Can you think of the exact moment when Jesus strikes at the serpent's head or, more specifically, the serpent's skull

Ask yourself, where is Jesus crucified? The hill's name is Golgotha, the place of the SKULL. Jesus' cross, the site of his victory over Satan, literally strikes a skull.  Again, this is why there is typically a skull depicted at the foot [read: heel] of the cross. 

Another level of cool: there's a tradition that Golgotha was so-named because it was where Adam was buried. There's actually a Chapel of Adam of beneath the Mount of Calvary in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Read more about all this here.


This is why Mary and Jesus are often depicted as crushing a serpent under their heels. But why Mary, you might ask.

The word for "he" in "he shall bruise [the serpent's] head" can be translated as either "he" or "she". In the original Hebrew, the antecedent determines whether the pronoun is masculine or feminine. The antecedent here would be "her seed."

St. Jerome's Vulgate translation of the Bible actually uses the female pronoun instead of "he," though this does not appear to be Jerome's original choice. Several Church Fathers, such as St. Augustine, support the "she" translation, as well, though the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament does not.

Why would it be "she," i.e. the Blessed Mother, that crushes the serpent's head? While it is Jesus who ultimately crushes Satan on the Cross, this makes sense. Mary's "yes" at the Annunciation crushes Satan in a certain sense. Also, Simeon prophesied of Mary that "a sword will pierce through your own soul also" (Luke 2:35). It's the "also" part. Mary assists Jesus in His redemption of mankind. 

The Protoevangelium: Prophesy as Proof

Isn't that amazing? All of these prophesies are contained in just one verse. Not only that, it's the very first prophesy in human history, found at the beginning of the Bible and written thousands of years before Mary's conception. 

Not only is prophecy proof of the power of God, Genesis 3:15 is scriptural proof for the Catholic teaching of the Immaculate Conception. 

Every Catholic should know about this, right? Prophesies like this should help fortify the faith of all Catholics. 

Moreover, the primary modes of credibility of the early Church were miracles and prophesy. That is, the early Christians convinced people of the truth of their faith by performing miracles in Jesus' name and pointing to the ancient prophesies fulfilled by Christ (and His Mother). 

What was true for the early Christians is true for us today. Will you please spread word of this proof of God's supernatural power in and over history? 

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Endnotes on What is the Protoevangelium:

[1] Et quidem decebat omnino, ut perfectissimae sanctitatis splendoribus semper ornata fulgeret, ac vel ab ipsa originalis culpae labe plane immunis amplissimum de antiquo sepente triumphum referret tam venerabilis mater, cui Deus Pater unicum Filius suum, quem de corde suo aequalem sibi genitum tamquam seipsum diligit, ita dare disposuit, ut naturaliter esset unus idemque communis Dei Patris et Virginis Filius, et quam ipse Filius, Filius substantialiter facere sibi matrem elegit, et de qua Siritus Sanctus voluit et operatus est, ut conciperetur et nasceretur ille, de quo ipse procedit.
[2] Dominic J. Unger, “Patristic Interpretation of the Protoevangelium,” Marian Studies 1 (1961): 111-64: from a "fragment, seemingly from a work on the Hexaemeron, was known till recently only in a Latin translation in a Catena. Laurentin found the Greek original in the Vatican library." 

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2 Comments

  1. What about Jesus feet bearing now 2 holes similar to what we would expect to see after a snake bite.

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    1. Hey, thanks for your comment! Are you the guy that posted that insight on Catholicism.org, as well? Yeah, I think that's an interesting connection. Did you also say something about the possibility of the nail being driven through the ankle?

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