- To understand the relationship between Catholic teaching about Mary and the Scriptural portrayal of Mary.
- To understand the biblical foundations of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
- To appreciate how Catholic belief in the Immaculate Conception flows from the New Testament portrait of Mary as the “New Eve”
II. Mary and the First Gospel
The dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception states that Jesus’ mother, alone among the billions born since the beginning of the world, was conceived without inheriting the curse of Adam and Eve’s original sin. In God’s plan, and by His grace, she was kept free from sin in order to become the all-holy Mother of God, as she was declared by the Council of Ephesus in 431.
Pope Pius IX declared the dogma on December 8, 1854, in a document entitled Ineffabilis Deus ("The Ineffable God")
He noted the long history of the Church’s belief that Mary was unstained by original sin - expressed especially in the writings of popes and in the Church’s prayers and worship.
And he noted that this belief was ultimately founded on centuries of preaching and teaching on three passages that we have looked at in great detail in earlier lessons - the "first Gospel" in the Garden of Eden (see Genesis 3:15), the annunciation (see Luke 1:26-38), and the vision of the "woman" in the Bible’s last book (see Revelation 12).
As we’ve seen in earlier lessons, these passages give us the biblical portrait of Mary as a "new Eve."
In the dogma of the Immaculate Conception we see the Church peering deeper into the mystery of God’s plan.
Recall that in Lesson 2 we saw how the biblical account of God’s punishment of Adam and Eve contained a proto-evangelium ("first gospel") - an inaugural announcement of the salvation that would come from a "woman" and her "offspring."
In this first gospel, God himself promised that there would be perpetual enmity between this woman and the serpent, and this enmity would culminate in the crushing of the serpent’s head by the woman’s "offspring" (see Genesis 3:15).
A. Original Sin, Original Enmity
What does this have to do with Mary’s Immaculate Conception? To answer means taking a closer look at the "first gospel."
First, the scene in Genesis depicts punishment for "original sin." That sin was caused by the temptation of the serpent, who is revealed elsewhere in Scripture to be the devil (see Revelation 12:2,9).
This sin is inherited by every human being as Eve became "the mother of all the living" (see Genesis 3:20). And as a result of this sin, humans are under the power of death (see Wisdom 2:24; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22). This is one of the reasons that Jesus said of the Devil, "He was a murderer from the beginning" (see John 8:44; Hebrews 2:14).
In punishment, God promised there would be "enmity" between the "woman" and the serpent, and between their offspring.
"Enmity" means mutual hatred.
Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word translated "enmity" implies a mortal rivalry, a hatred which causes each party to desire the death of the other (see Numbers 35:21; Ezekiel 25:15; 35:5).
The word is used only to describe rivalries between persons or nations. It isn’t ever used to describe a hatred between a person and an animal.
This suggests that this passage of Genesis is meant to be read symbolically. In other words: although the text depicts God literally promising to put enmity between a snake and a woman, symbolically the text speaks of enmity between whom or what the snake "stands for" and whom or what the woman "stands for."
Indeed, this is how the Church’s earliest saints and theologians interpreted the passage, beginning in the pages of the New Testament (see Romans 16:20; Revelation 12).
Note that it is God who establishes the enmity ("I will put enmity"). This is no natural aversion. This is a divinely created opposition, one that God has established for all time.
B. Offspring and Death
Note also that this enmity is "two-fold" - between the serpent and the woman, and between the serpent’s offspring and the offspring of the woman.
The Hebrew word translated "offspring" is literally, "seed."
It refers to the seeds of plants (see Genesis 1:11; 12:20; Leviticus 26:16). It also refers to the children of individuals (see Genesis 4:25; 15:3; 2 Samuel 7:12) and to a person’s descendants or to the race of a people (see Genesis 12:7; 13:15; Isaiah 14:20; 57:3).
Occasionally, the word is used in a "moral" sense, as when the psalmist speaks of "the posterity of the wicked" (see Psalm 37:28) and the prophet Isaiah speaks of an "evil race, corrupt children" (see Isaiah 1:4).
Finally, God promises that the woman’s seed will "strike" or crush the head of the serpent.
To crush the head of a serpent is to kill it. So what we have here is the promise of the serpent’s death under the foot of the seed of a woman, that is under the foot of the woman’s child.
C. From Scripture to Dogma
From a close reading, we can see how the Church - beginning in the New Testament - has long seen this text as supporting a belief in Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
First, it forsees a new "woman," a new Eve, and her "seed," Jesus. As we’ve seen in earlier lessons, this passage is the source of the description of Mary as "woman" in John’s Gospel (see John 2:4; 19:26).
This woman and her child were the focus of Christian expectations for a messiah, as Paul says: "when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman . . ." (see Galatians 4:4)
Also as we’ve noted in earlier lessons, the dramatic conflict between "the woman" and the "serpent" in the Bible’s last book are heavily influenced by the proto-evangelium (Revelation 12).This, also as we’ve noted, is where we get the interpretation of the serpent in Eden as Satan (see Revelation 12:9).
In Revelation, we’re shown that the woman’s offspring is both Jesus (see Revelation 12:5) and "those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus" (see Revelation 12:17).
Finally, the proto-evangeliumen visions the defeat of Satan by the woman’s seed. Paul alludes to this when he writes: "the God of peace will quickly crush Satan under your feet" (see Romans 16:20).
How does this interpretation foresee "the woman" (Mary) being born without original sin?
It is true Scripture teaches that all men and women have been conceived "in sin" (see Psalm 51:7). Paul wrote that sin entered the world through Adam and Eve and, as a result, "all sinned" and "condemnation came upon all" (see Romans 5:12,18).
But the proto-evangelium seems to envision at least two people - the woman and her offspring - who will not be conceived under the rule of the serpent and the consequences of the serpent’s deceit.
Recall what the text says - the enmity is "put" by God, and that enmity is a mortal rivalry - an absolute hostility, a struggle to the death.
If Mary was conceived with original sin, there couldn’t be the perpetual enmity promised by God himself between the seed of the woman and the serpent. To the contrary, if Mary was conceived with original sin, the serpent would be victorious, subjecting the woman to his power. If this were the case, God’s promise would prove to be untrue.
But this clearly is not what God intended in putting enmity between the woman’s seed and the serpent’s. Rather, it appears that Mary, the woman promised in the beginning, must be born outside of Satan’s power in order to fulfill God’s promise of absolute enmity.
That’s how Pope Pius XII interpreted this Scripture in Fulgens Corona ("The Radiant Crown"), written to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the dogma’s declaration (seeno. 7). This interpretation was also affirmed by Pope John Paul II (see "Mary’s Enmity Towards Satan Was Absolute").
Also, as Paul noted, for the sake of our salvation, God caused grace to overflow, and caused Jesus "who did not know sin" to reign over the power of sin and death (see Romans 5:20; 2 Cor 5:21). If the woman’s seed, Jesus, was not to know sin, how could His mother?
- Lesson One: A Biblical Introduction to Mary
- To understand the basic outlines of the New Testament’s witness to Mary.
- To appreciate how the Old Testament forms the essential background for what the New Testament teaches about Mary.
- To understand “typology” and its importance for reading the New Testament texts concerning Mary.
- Lesson Two: Wedding at Cana, Garden in Eden
- To appreciate the Old Testament symbolism that forms the deep background to the Gospel account of the wedding feast at Cana.
- To understand how Mary is depicted as a “New Eve” in this account.
- To appreciate the importance of the Old Testament marriage symbolism for John’s recounting of the “sign” at Cana.
- Lesson Three: The Ark of the New Covenant
- To see how Mary’s visit to Elizabeth parallels David’s bringing of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem.
- To understand how the book of Revelation uses the startling image of the rediscovered Ark of the Covenant to introduce a vision of the Mother of Christ.
- To understand why the New Testament writers see Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant.
- Lesson Four: Mother Crowned in Glory
- To see the importance of the Queen Mother in the Davidic kingdom of the Old Testament.
- To understand the duties and privileges that came with the position of Queen Mother.
- To see how Mary fills the position of Queen Mother in the kingdom of Christ.
- Lesson Six: The Queen Assumed into Heaven
- To understand the biblical foundations of the Dogma of the Assumption.
- To understand the deep Old Testament symbolism and imagery in Revelation 12, and its relation to Catholic beliefs about Mary.
- To appreciate how the biblical portrait of Mary is reflected and interpreted in the Church’s liturgy.