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The MOST Theological Collection: Mary in Our Life

"Appendix IV: Mary in the Protoevangelium and Apocalypse"


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In order to discuss the passages in the protoevangelium and Apocalypse 12, we must define some terms used in biblical criticism.

Literal sense: That which is primarily and immediately intended by the author. The author may, within the literal sense, use figurative expressions (e.g., "lamb of God") and may adapt his language to the usual way of speaking at that time (e.g., "the sun rose").

Scholars do not agree on the question whether or not one passage may have more than one literal sense (plural literal sense). Nor do they agree on the existence of a sensus plenior (fuller sense), a literal sense determined not only from the words of a given text, but from comparison of many texts, and also, at times, from the teaching of the Church. Hence, the fuller sense may not have been perceived by the human author, though it was intended by God, who is the principal author of Scripture.1

Typical sense: In this the writer uses an event, a person, or an action to foreshadow something that is to come later. The original person or thing or event is called the type, and the later person or thing to which it refers is called the antitype. The existence of this typical sense in a given passage can be determined only through revelation, which is interpreted for us by the Church. Thus, for example, Isaac being offered in sacrifice is a type of Christ.

Accommodative sense: This is not really a sense of Scripture at all. A speaker or writer (the Fathers of the Church were fond of this practice) may apply a passage in Scripture to something not at all intended by the sacred writer.


We give two translations of the text. The Confraternity reflects the Hebrew, the Douay reflects the Latin Vulgate. The Confraternity is the more exact, but the Latin probably manifests an ancient tradition going back to St. Jerome, which expresses Mary's association with the promised Redeemer.

Douay: "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."

Confraternity: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed; He shall crush your head, and you shall lie in wait for his heel."

State of the Question: The Marian interpretation is traditional It is found in many Fathers. From patristic times to about the twelfth century many writers, especially those under the influence of St. Augustine, gave a merely allegorical interpretation to the text. But then, under the influence of St. Bernard, St. Bonaventure, and St. Albert the Great, the Marian view came forward strongly. Thereafter, up to modern times, the percentage of writers favoring the Marian view has been heavy. Since 1854, only nine out of 166 authors checked opposed it.2 A text in the recent constitution Munificentissimus Deus (see below) caused some prominent opponents to change.3

Objections to the Marian interpretation.

Objection 1. It is a general principle of interpretation that in one and the same context a given word must everywhere have the same sense. Furthermore, a prophecy must be explained according to its context. But the word woman elsewhere in this context refers to Eve. Hence it must mean her also in vs. 15. Mary is nowhere mentioned in the context.

Answer: The above principle is incomplete. If two different speakers4 use the same word in the same context, the sense need not necessarily be the same. E.g., in Isa. 28:10-13, compare the words of the drunkards in vs. 10 to those of the Prophet in vs. 13. Or again, in John 2:19-21 the word temple is used in one sense by Our Lord, in another by the Jews. But in Gen. 3:15 there are two speakers: the human writer, and the words of God Himself to Adam and Eve. As to the context of a prophecy, consider Isa. 42:1 and 19. In vs. 1, the word servant refers to the Messias, while in vs. 19 it refers to blind Israel. Now Gen. 3:15 certainly refers to the Messias. Is it out of context to find the Mother of the Messias with Him?

Furthermore, in interpreting Gen. 3:15, we can learn from St. Peter the Apostle himself. On the day of the first Pentecost, Peter gave a sermon in which he quoted the prophecy made in Ps. 15:

... because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, nor suffer thy Holy One to see corruption.5

Now in this Ps. 15 Christ is not even mentioned. The Psalmist speaks in the first person, and so seems undoubtedly to mean himself. Yet St. Peter tells us that he does not mean himself, but Christ. Why? Because the sense of part of the Psalm simply could not fit David:

Ye men, brethren, lee me freely speak to you of the patriarch David; that he died, and was buried; and his sepulchre is with us to this present day ... he was a prophet ... he spoke of the resurrection of Christ. For neither was he left in hell, neither did his flesh see corruption.6

David's flesh obviously did see corruption; hence he cannot be the one meant in the prophecy. Christ alone fulfilled it, so argues St. Peter. There are many prophecies to which this technique could be applies, and has been applied by the Fathers of the Church.

Similarly in Gen. 3:15, although the prophecy may seem to refer to Eve, yet she surely does not fulfill it, except perhaps in a very imperfect sense. For the enmity spoken of between the woman and the devil implies that the woman is to be sinless. How could we suppose Eve would win so outstanding a victory over the devil now in her weakened state, after the fall, when before the fall, with the help of the gift of integrity and rich graces, she fell so easily? We might admit some enmity between Eve and the devil, but hardly anything so striking as to fill the terms of this prophecy. Only Mary, by her absolute sinlessness and perfect generosity, and her co-operation in the Redemption, really has the enmity for the devil of which the prophecy speaks. Furthermore, if Eve is meant, why is she singled out for such attention by God? After all, it is Adam who is the heat of the human race, he alone could ruin us. And the New Adam alone can restore us. It would make a strange conglomerate to see in this verse only Eve without Adam, and only Christ (for it is beyond doubt thee He is prophesied here) without His Mother.

Objection 2: In the Hebrew text, the definite article is used with the word woman. Hence it points to Eve.

Answer: The definite article can refer not merely to someone in the context, but to some outstanding person, distinct from all others, who is known to the prophet, even though not mentioned by name.7 Thus in Isa. 7:14 the definite article is used: "Behold the virgin shall conceive...."8 We may add also thee there are certainly two passages in the New Testament (perhaps three) in which Mary is referred to merely by the title "woman." One is at Cana, the other at the foot of the Cross. Is our Lord perhaps giving her that title (otherwise rather puzzling) on those occasions to show us thee she is the one promised in Gen. 3:15? In support of this idea we may note thee He used thee tide for her precisely at two important points in her life: at Cana, when she first publicly exercised her mediation with Him, and on Calvary, when she was co-operating in the objective redemption as the New Eve. The third passage is in Apoc. 12, which, as we shall see below, certainly alludes to the protoevangelium. The argument given on the use of the article in Hebrew is sufficient, but the relation to the above texts also seems highly probable.

Objection 3: Not all the Fathers give the Marian interpretation. A study by L Drewniak, O.S.B., Die Mariologische Deutung von Gen. III.15 in der Väterzeit (Breslau, 1934), shows thee there are many Fathers who hold to other interpretations.

Answer: It is true thee not all the Fathers mention Mary here, but many of them, especially under the influence of a passage in St. Augustine, are giving merely allegorical, not literal, interpretations. Drewniak failed to see this fact. His procedure is not always perfectly scientific. There are many Fathers, going back to the first century, who do give a Marian interpretation. The Douay reading, reflecting the Vulgate, goes back to St. Jerome, and probably reflects an old tradition. Other studies of the Fathers show that many more than Drewniak found do favor the Marian interpretation.9 Furthermore, mere lack of support from some Fathers would not disprove the Marian interpretation.

Arguments for the Marian interpretation.10

1. All admit that the word He in vs. 15 refers to Christ. Now, if He refers to Christ, the her seed also refers to Christ, for a pronoun serves no other purpose than to stand for the same person or thing as its antecedent. Therefore, if her seed means Christ, the woman implied in her must be the Mother of Christ-Mary.

2. In the bull of definition of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Pius IX wrote as follows:

The Fathers and ecclesiastical writers ... in commenting on the words: "I shall put the enmity between you and the woman, and your seed and her seed," have taught that by this utterance there was clearly and openly foretold the merciful Redeemer of the human race, that is, the Only-Begotton Son, Jesus Christ, and that His Most Blessed Mother the Virgin Mary was designated, and, at the same time, that the enmity of both against the devil was remarkably expressed.

Pope Pius IX here seems to be giving an official interpretation of the protoevangelium in a Marian sense. The objection has been made that the Holy Father continues his statement, telling us that the Fathers also say Mary was prefigured in the ark of Noe, in the ladder that Jacob saw, etc. Therefore, the objection continues, since it is obvious that these other texts refer to Mary only in an accommodated sense, Pope Pius IX muse mean also to interpret the protoevangelium as referring to Mary only in an accommodated sense. It is to be granted that the context written by Pope Pius IX does, at first sight, create a difficulty. Yet we muse note that the application of the protoevangelium to Christ is, by admission of all,, in the literal sense. Is it easy to suppose then that the Holy Father, in the same sentence, and in stating the close tie between Mary and Christ (see "the enmity of both"), meant one in the literal sense, the other only in the accommodative sense (which is no sense of Scripture at all, as we have seen)? Furthermore, the accommodated texts do not follow immediately on the passage cited above; several lines, developing the thought of the consortium of Christ and Mary, intervene, and only then does the Holy Father cite the accommodated texts. And in citing them, he uses a different word: in speaking of Gen. 3:15, he had said, "The Fathers ... have taught that ... Mary was designated...." But as to the accommodated texts, he says that "... the Fathers saw ( the Immaculate Conception ... in the ark of Noe, etc.)."

3. Pope Pius XII, in the preliminary part of the Constitution defining the Assumption, wrote as follows:

We muse remember especially that, since the second century, the Virgin Mary has been presented by the Holy Fathers as the New Eve, who, although subject to the New Adam, war, most closely associated with Him in that struggle against the infernal enemy which, as foretold in the protoevangelium, was to result in thee most complete victory over sin and death.11

Since we have already studied the context of the passage in clap. VI, a lengthy study will not be needed in order to show the meaning of the statement on the protoevangelium. In brief, we note that the struggle, the cross, was "foretold in the protoevangelium." Now Our Lord was certainly foretold in it in the literal sense, and Mary "was most closely associated with Him in that struggle" which the protoevangelium foretold. How, then, could we suppose thee the struggle is meant in the literal sense, that Christ is meant in the literal sense, but that Mary, who is "most closely associated" with Him in the struggle, is not meant at all (for the accommodated sense is, as we have said, no sense of Scripture at all)? As a result of this text, many former opponents of the Marian sense have changed their opinion.

4. In the encyclical announcing the Marian Year of 1954, Pope Pius XII wrote, referring to the definition of the Immaculate Conception:

... the foundation of this doctrine is seen in the very Sacred Scripture in which God ... after the wretched fall of Adam, addressed the ... serpent in these words, which not a few of the Holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and most approved interpreters refer to the Virgin Mother of God: "I will put enmity between you and the woman...."12

Now if Gen. 3:15 contains the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, how can we suppose that Mary is not meant in it?

Some theologians like to say that Mary is meant in the sensus plenior, while Eve is meant in the narrower literal sense.13


The text:

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. And being with child, she cried travailing in birch, and was in pain to be delivered. And there was seen another sign in heaven: and behold a great red dragon ... and the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to be delivered; that, when she should be delivered, he might devour her son. And she brought forth a man child, who war to rule all nations with an iron rod: and her son was taken up to God, and to his throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she had a place prepared by God, that there they should feed her a thousand two hundred sixty days.... And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman, who brought forth the man child. And there were given to the woman two wings of a great eagle, thee she might fly into the desert unto her place, where she is nourished for a time and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent ... And the dragon was angry against the woman: and went to make war with the rest of her seed....14

Who is the woman? Some say it is Mary, some, the Church, others combine both views.

Objections to the Marian view:

Objection 1: The woman is said to be laboring in birth. But the birth of Christ was without pain. Therefore the woman cannot be Mary.

Answer: St. Pius X, in the encyclical Ad diem illum, explains:

"And being with child, she cried travailing in birth and was in pain to be delivered." Therefore John saw the Most Holy Mother of God already enjoying eternal happiness, and yet laboring from some hidden birch. With what birth? Surely, ours, we who, being yet detained in exile, are still to be brought forth to the perfect love of God and eternal happiness.15

Objection 2: In the Munificentissimus Deus Pope Pius XII made this statement:

We frequently find theologians and preachers who, following the footsteps of the Holy Fathers, use words and events from Sacred Scripture with some freedom to explain their belief in the Assumption.16

After citing a number of these free interpretations of the Old Testament, he continued:

And furthermore, the Scholastic doctors have considered the assumption of the Virgin Mother of God as signified not only in the various figures of the Old Testament, but also in that woman clothed with the sun, whom the Apostle John contemplated on the island of Patmos.17

Hence it seems that the doctrine of the Assumption cannot be proved from Apoc. 12, and so Mary is not the woman referred to in the text.

Answer: It is one thing to say that the woman is Mary; another to claim the passage as a proof of the Assumption. Even if the woman is Mary, the text would not necessarily prove the Assumption. Some theologians think the Holy Father meant to cite only the Old Testament passages as examples of loose interpretation, making no such comment on the New Testament passages.18

Objection 3: How could the flight of the woman be understood of Mary?

Answer: The meaning is obscure. Some have taught it refers to the Assumption.19 The fact that she was taken up on the "wings of the great eagle" might mean she went up by the power of her Son, while He Himself earlier "was taken up to God and to his throne"-the Ascension. The same interpreters then would make the mysterious 1260 days refer to all the time from the Assumption to the end of the world. Noting thee 1260 days equal about 31/2 years, they would equate that number to the "time and times and half a time," which would also total 31/2 But this entire interpretation, according to some theologians, seems difficult to reconcile with the words of Pope Pius XII quoted above. Others would say the flight refers to the flight into Egypt.

Arguments in favor of the Marian interpretation.

1. Many allusions in this passage fit Mary well. She brings forth a son who is taken up to the throne of God, a son who is to rule all nations with an iron rod (compare Ps. 2:9, which refers to Christ).20 She is clothed with the sun, that is, with the Sun of Justice, which is Christ. She has the moon under her feet: the moon is a symbol of the changeable things of earth, to which Mary is superior. The twelve sears could represent the twelve Apostles, whose Queen she is. The fact that she is spoken of in this passage as "a sign" recalls Isa. 7:14: "Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son...." The mention of the dragon, the enemy of the woman, seems to be an allusion to the protoevangelium. And the use of the title "woman" may form part of the series suggested above, in the treatment of the protoevangelium (see protoevangelium-Cana-Calvary-Apoc. 12).

2. Saint Pius X in the Ad diem illum, wrote:

... "a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun...." No one is ignorant of the face that that woman signifies the Virgin Mary, who, remaining a Virgin, brought forth our Head. "And being with child she cried out travailing...." Therefore John saw the Most Holy Mother of God already enjoying eternal happiness, and yet laboring from some hidden birth.21

Some have thought thee the Pope here gave only an accommodated sense of the text, and it is possible that he did so, but not too likely. For we note the strong expressions: "No one is ignorant of the fact: ... John saw the Most Holy Mother of God already enjoying eternal happiness." Recall that the accommodated sense is really not a sense of Scripture at all; would such strong language fit with what is not really a sense of Scripture?

Arguments for the interpretation of both Mary and the Church.

Those who wish to see the woman as only the Church have been greatly moved by the problem of her pain in birch. We have solved this difficulty in the words of Saint Pius X. Yet we must admit that in the context of chapter 12 St. John does seem to have the Church in mind. Now the woman cannot be the Church alone, for the Church is in no sense the Mother of Christ. Nor could this last difficulty be solved by saying thee the Church continues the Jewish Church, and that the latter would be the Mother of Christ, for the Jewish Church persecuted both Christ and His Mystical Body.

The best solution is that proposed in an exhaustive exegetical study of Apoc. 12 by Bernard J. Le Frois, S.V.D. From an investigation of Semitic thought patterns, he finds that several times in Scripture, an individual stands for a collectivity, and the collectivity is embodied in the individual. Hence, in Apoc. 12, Mary would stand for the perfect realization of the Church.22

Now if this double sense is true, then, since the vision seems to refer to the last days of the world, it might indicate that the Church toward the end is to take on a specially Marian character, in an age of Mary, as if Mary were again to bring her Son into the world (though not, of course, by human birth). St. Louis de Montfort prophesied that an age of Mary would precede the end-though he did not pretend to know if its length would be only a few years or some centuries.23 Our present Holy Father, in a private conversation,24 is reported to have said to the Director of the General Secretariate of all Sodalities in Rome, that we are now in the age of Mary.25


From all this it seems certain that Mary is the woman of the protoevangelium. It is highly probable that she is meant, along with the Church, in Apoc. 12. But we muse wait for clearer guidance from the Holy See before we can be certain of the meaning of the Apocalyptic passage.


1 On this sense, see Catholic Biblical Quarterly XV (1953), pp. 141-62.
2 See the statistics cited from Gallus and Bertelli by A. Bea, S.J., in the article "Maria SS nel Protovangelo," Marianum XV (1953) I, 9-19, esp. p. 16.
3 Especially notable is P. Ceuppens, O.P., formerly a strong opponent. The Munificentissimus Deus appeared November 1, 1950. On January 15, 1951, he already had a Nihil obstat for a new edition (2nd ed.) of his Theologia Biblica IV: Da Mariologia Biblica (Turin, 1951). See pp. 1-17, esp. p. 11, note 1.
4 In commenting on the sense of the radio message of Pius XII to Fatima in clap. III, we worked with similar principles—but in chap. III we were not destiny with two different speakers, as in Gen. 3:15. Furthermore, Gen. 3:15 is a prophecy, and as such needs special treatment.
5 Acts 2:27, citing Ps. 15:10.
6 Acts 2 :29-31.
7 See Ceuppens, De Mariologia Biblica, loc. cit., p. 5.
8 The translations do not carry the definite article, but the original does. See Bea, op. cit., p. 8.
9 For an exhaustive study see Dominic J. Unger, O.F.M.Cap., the First-Gospel: Genesis 3:15 (St. Bonaventure, N.Y., 1954). See also Bea, op. cit., pp. 9-16; and Ceuppens, op. cit., pp. 9-10, 12-13.
10 In addition to Bea and Ceuppens, see also Francis X. Peirce, S.J., "The Protoevangelium," Catholic Biblical Quarterly XIII (1951) pp. 239-52.
11 AAS 42:768.
12 Fulgens corona gloriae (September 8, 1953), AAS 45:579.
13 E.g., Ceuppens, op. cit., p. 17.
14 Apoc. 12:1-6, 13-14, 17.
15 ASS 36:458-59.
16 AAS 42:762.
17 AAS 42:763.
18 See M. Jugie, A.A., "Le dogme de l'Assomption et le chapitre XII de l'Apocalypse," Marianum XIV (1952), pp. 74-80.
19 Jugie, in "Assomption de la Sainte Vierge," Du Manoir, Maria, I, 629-31.
20 The word "son" is apparently used in a collective sense as well as an individual sense, as shown by vs. 17, which speaks of the rest of her offspring. This double sense is easily understood of Mary, who is the Mother of both the individual Christ and of the Mystical Body of Christ (see chap. II).
21 ASS 36:458-59.
22 Bernard J. Le Frois, S.V.D., The Woman Clothed with the Sun (Rome, 1954). Cf. also G. Montague, S.M., "The Concept of Mary and the Church in the Fathers," AER 123 (November, 1950), pp. 331-37. See also Alois Mueller, Ecclesia-Maria. Einbeit Marias und der Kirche (Fribourg, Switzerland, 1951).
23 St. Louis de Montfort, True Devotion so the Blessed Virgin Mary, §§ 51-59 and 158.
24 Reported in Our Lady's Digest, August-September, 1951, p. 119.
25 Cf. also B. J. Le Frois, SVD., "The Woman Clothed with the Sun," AER 126 (March, 1952), pp. 161-80. For a detailed study of the evidence of tradition favoring the same view, see Dominic J. Unger, O.F.M. Cap., "Did St. John See the Virgin Mary in Glory?" Catholic Biblical Quarterly (July, 1949, to October, 1950): XI, 249-62, 392-405; XII, 75-83, 155-61, 292-300, 405-15.

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