With Madonna and child hovering in a background cloud, the angel casts Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Paradise.

With Madonna and child hovering in a background cloud, the angel casts Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Paradise.

January 20, 2014

Even today, many statues of the Virgin Mary in the Western Church portray her standing on a snake. This portrayal of Mary stems from an early mistranslation of Genesis 3.15 into Latin which describes "the woman" as crushing the serpent's head.

The more accurate translation has God telling the serpent, "I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head and you will strike his heel." So, if anything, it should be Jesus who is portrayed as standing on the serpent.

Nevertheless, there is a link between Mary and Eve. Just as Jesus is the New Adam, Mary is sometimes called the New Eve. As Adam and Eve were progenitors of humanity so Jesus and Mary are the creators of the new humanity.

Calling Mary the New Eve links her closely with the redemption of humanity.

Blessed John Paul II drew out this link in his 1988 exhortation on The Dignity and Vocation of Women (MD). In Eve, the covenant has its beginning, the late pope wrote. However, in the Old Testament while God sometimes spoke with women, when it came to the covenant, he spoke only with men.

In the New Testament, however, God sent his angel to a woman, Mary, a sign the late pope said, that in Christ, there is no male or female (MD 11, Galatians 3.28).

This is a change in Church teaching. Since the second century, leading Church theologians as well as popes and other official teachers have drawn a sharp line between Eve and Mary. For St. Irenaeus, "The knot of Eve's disobedience was untied by Mary."

The face of Mary is shown in detail, side view of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, a painted and gilded statue attributed to Juan Martinez Montanes.


The face of Mary is shown in detail, side view of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, a painted and gilded statue attributed to Juan Martinez Montanes.

For St. Ambrose in the fourth century, Eve was inferior to Adam because she was created second. She was also responsible for the sin of Adam. There, we have one root of the view of woman as temptress.

Ambrose's protégé, St. Augustine, believed strongly that his own spiritual development meant avoiding women. He would not permit himself to be alone with a woman, even a family member; a chaperone was always needed.

In Augustine's defence, he had a serious addiction to unchastity. It was the last and strongest chain that kept him from being converted to Christ. As far as I know, he never blamed his fornicating on his female partners; he freely admitted his own responsibility and weakness in that area.

Nevertheless, his life and writings contributed to the mythology of woman as temptress, and upheld the polar opposition between Eve and Mary. It is the Virgin Mary who is the model of salvation while the virgin Eve leads men astray.

It is sometimes thought that God cursed Adam and Eve for their sin, and that God made Eve subservient to Adam so women would no longer lead men astray.

This is a distorted view of the biblical text. In fact, the creation of the first woman is presented there as the crowning glory of creation.

Genesis 2 and 3 is not, says Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, a story about "the danger of sex, the origin of evil, the appearance of death or the power of the fall. It is, rather, the summons of God calling us to be his creatures, to live in his world on his terms" (Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching).

The climax of the story is not so much that Adam and Eve are cast out of the garden, but that God preserved their lives after they rejected his sovereignty.


For Brueggemann, Adam and Eve's removal from the garden is not a punishment; it is the power of guilt working its own destruction. "Death comes, not by way of external imposition, but of its own weight."

The sin of our first parents destroyed the mutuality and equality among people and made us creatures of oppression. Throughout the Bible, the far-reaching effects of sin are evident. One sin affects not only the sinner but all human relationships and even creation itself. It shatters the original harmony in ways deeper than we can fathom.

My last article on Mary (Dec. 16) spoke of her immaculate conception as beginning to heal the disharmony due to the disobedience of Adam and Eve. A spiritual crisis reverberates throughout creation. So too does spiritual healing.

In the New Covenant, wrote Pope John Paul, "Mary assumes in herself and embraces the mystery of the 'woman' whose beginning is Eve."


Whether Mary should actually be portrayed as standing on the serpent is one thing. Scholars, however, have noted similarities in the dialogue between Eve and the serpent and that between Mary and the angel Gabriel in Luke's Gospel.

If Genesis 2 and 3 are a minor part of the Old Testament, those chapters take on a larger role in the New Testament and even more in the reflections of the early Church fathers.

However, one should not buy into the mythology about the inferiority of women or about women as temptresses.

There are parallels between Mary and Eve. The essence of the New Covenant, of course, is redemption through Jesus Christ. Mary is the bridge between Adam and Eve and the new life found in Christ. Bad translation or not, Mary's obedience does play a key role in overcoming the disobedience of our first parents.