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Genesis 3:15 is referred to by Christian theologians as the protoevangelium (first proclamation of the [Christian] gospel). The text reads:

Hebrew (MT):

וְאֵיבָ֣ה׀ אָשִׁ֗ית בֵּֽינְךָ֙ וּבֵ֣ין הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה וּבֵ֥ין זַרְעֲךָ֖ וּבֵ֣ין זַרְעָ֑הּ ה֚וּא יְשׁוּפְךָ֣ רֹ֔אשׁ וְאַתָּ֖ה תְּשׁוּפֶ֥נּוּ עָקֵֽב׃ (BHS)

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel (ESV).

And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; they shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise their heel (JPS 1917).


Greek (LXX):

καὶ ἔχθραν θήσω ἀνὰ μέσον σου καὶ ἀνὰ μέσον τῆς γυναικὸς καὶ ἀνὰ μέσον τοῦ σπέρματός σου καὶ ἀνὰ μέσον τοῦ σπέρματος αὐτῆς· αὐτός σου τηρήσει κεφαλήν, καὶ σὺ τηρήσεις αὐτοῦ πτέρναν (Rahlfs 2nd ed.).

And I will put enmity between you and between the woman and between your seed and between her seed; he will keep watch over your head, and you will keep watch over his heel (my translation).

When did the identification of this passage as the protoevangelium develop historically? If any pre-Christian sources can be identified, how was this passage interpreted prior to the advent of Christianity?

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Tangential but interesting: James Hamilton, "The Skull Crushing Seed of the Woman: Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Genesis 3:15", Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 10 (2006): 30-54. See the Wilcox reference @ n. 19 (pp. 46-7), and cf. (!) an odd old work, J.R. Wolfe, The Messiah as predicted in the Pentateuch and Psalms (London and Glasgow: R. Grfiffin & Co, 1855), p. 3 who notes the Targumic evidence (in archaic terms). –  Davïd May 29 at 21:47
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More resources. Skinner's ICC Genesis is still the best Genesis commentary on the Nachleben of 3:15, also citing the two targumim as (sole?) exemplars of Jewish messianic interp. R. Martin argues that the LXX is "The Earliest Messianic Interpretation of Genesis 3:15", JBL 84 (1965): 425-7. W. Wifall, "Gen 3:15—A Protevangelium?, CBQ 36 (1974): 361-5 places it in wider "messianism" of HB, but reflecting Davidic tradition. Peter Leithart's "Protoevangelium" provides an excellent round-up. –  Davïd May 30 at 7:28
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This stuff is pure gold, @Davïd. Thanks –  Daи May 30 at 12:04

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

In a related question, I surveyed some of the ancient Jewish and Christian literature that identified the serpent with the satan. This is probably the historical starting point for what would become a 'messianic' interpretation of the verse.1

It has also been argued that, on the basis of the Septuagint translation of Genesis 3.15, Jews were already reading the 'seed' of Eve as referring to a singular person who would 'crush' the serpent:

This evidence has to do with the pronoun one uses with the word seed. In Hebrew, zera' is masculine, so one would use the masculine pronoun "he" (hû’) whether one wanted to speak of one descendant or all of them. But in Greek the word for "seed" (sperma) is neuter, so if one wants to use the word to refer all the descendants, one follows it with the neuter personal pronoun "it" (auto). In contrast, if one wants to use the word "seed" to refer to a single descendant, one uses a masculine or feminine pronoun: "he" (autos) or "she" (autē). In this passage, the Septuagint uses the masculine pronoun autos, indicating that "seed" refers to a single male descendant of Eve.2

Romans 16.20 describes the removal of deceptive teachers from the church of Rome, and 1 Timothy 2 and 5 instruct Christian women to avoid deception. In both cases, the deception is ultimately attributed to the satan with allusions to Genesis 3.15.

Neither of these corresponds to the traditional Christian view, but the closest we get (within the new testament) is Revelation 12.1-12: the satan is called 'that ancient serpent' and 'the deceiver of the whole world', and is promptly 'conquered' by the messianic Lamb.

But the earliest explicit Christian exposition of Genesis 3.15 as the 'protoevangelium' comes from Justin Martyr:

For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her: wherefore also the Holy Thing begotten of her is the Son of God; and she replied, 'Be it unto me according to your word.' And by her has He been born, to whom we have proved so many Scriptures refer, and by whom God destroys both the serpent and those angels and men who are like him; but works deliverance from death to those who repent of their wickedness and believe upon Him.3

Shortly after, Irenaeus wrote:

He has therefore, in His work of recapitulation, summed up all things, both waging war against our enemy, and crushing him who had at the beginning led us away captives in Adam, and trampled upon his head, as you can perceive in Genesis that God said to the serpent, "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall be on the watch for your head, and you on the watch for His heel."4

and

Now the Lord would not have recapitulated in Himself that ancient and primary enmity against the serpent, fulfilling the promise of the Creator, and performing His command, if He had come from another Father.5


Footnotes

1 I'll mention here, there are quotes from various targumim floating around, where Genesis 3.15 is described as a prophecy to be fulfilled 'in the days of the King Messiah'. However, I cannot find any information on when these were written.

2 Donald Fairbarn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers (2009), p.122, footnote 10.

3 Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho (Roberts-Donaldson translation), chapter 100. (Minor editions, to bring the 'thees' and 'thous' into contemporary English.)

4 Irenaeus, Against Heresies (Roberts-Donaldson translation), chapter 5.21.1.

5 Ibid., chapter 5.21.2.

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Your info about the Septuagint translation is interesting. –  ScottS May 29 at 20:21
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Oddly, I was just adding the LXX to the question to encourage this observation. Looks like we were writing at the same time (I was going through some of the textual variances and decided only to include the base LXX text in the question). Great answer! +1 –  Daи May 29 at 20:22
    

A Purely Biblical Argument

Identification as the Incarnate Jesus Christ

Obviously this identification could not be made until after Jesus came (e.g. Jn 1:41), so there would be no "pre-Christian sources" identifying the reference directly to Jesus (as understood by post-incarnation believers).

Identification as the Coming Christ

Moses, the one who I take as having penned the recorded revelation of Gen 3:15,1 was obviously familiar with the passage. Later revelation declares Moses knew of a coming Christ prior to forsaking Egypt (Heb 11:26),2 which means knowledge of a "Christ" (Messiah) was around prior to the recording of the inspired OT text about Him. Christ declares Moses did write about Him—Jn 5:46, Lk 24:27, which writing of Christ later NT revelation shows must have included the Gen 3:15 reference since Christ is the One who defeats through death the one with power over death, the devil (Heb 2:14); death is, of course, the issue faced by Adam and Eve in Gen 3.

So Christ's testimony and NT revelation reveals that Moses (at least) wrote of Christ's connection to Gen 3:15, whether others interpreted it that way or not. And thus at least since Moses, the passage could have been understood in that light.

Identification as the Coming One Who will Save from the Sin in the Garden

Eve herself, obviously familiar with the verbal statement recorded later in Gen 3:15, appears to interpret that statement as a message of hope (of "good news," i.e. of "gospel"). As it is the best explanatory basis for her hopeful (if misplaced identification) in her firstborn:

And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, "I have gotten a man from the LORD." (Gen 4:1).

Her emphasis on this newborn "man" (her seed) being "from the LORD" echoes back to the promise of Gen 3:15.

So arguably, the first "pre-Christian" interpretation of Gen 3:15 referring to some coming human who would reverse the issues from Genesis 3 was made by Eve herself. And if so, all the faithful to follow as they heard the account from Adam over the next 930 years (Gen 5:5).

Conclusion

So the "historical basis" of the verbal passing of information is Adam and Eve themselves, while the basis was codified with the revelation given to Moses.


NOTES

1 I realize there is much higher critical controversy on this, but my hermeneutic considers him the sole author of most (if not perhaps even all, even the record of his death) of the Pentateuch.

2 Taking the NT as inspired, its testimony about thoughts, motives, etc., is valid to introduce as evidence for events long past.

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Good point and interesting answer (+1). I've heard the argument that Eve likely expected an immediate fulfillment from her son. So you think Moses recorded his own death account also?!? Any papers you can link to for more on that idea? –  Daи May 29 at 20:24
    
@Daи: I am not necessarily convinced Moses did that, but being revelation, there is nothing that would have prevented Moses from prerecording his death account (after all, Christ had prerecorded His own death account ;-)) I actually lean toward Joshua as penning that portion, but cannot prove it one way or the other. But those that do not believe the Bible inspired cannot even consider Moses having penned it as a possibility. I do not have any papers to link to (other than Christ's references to Moses writing the Law), as I have not specifically studied it out (not sure it could be proved). –  ScottS May 29 at 20:30
    
no problem, I just like learning new things and reading :P –  Daи May 29 at 20:31
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my favorite is in the instructions for preparing the Passover lamb where in Exodus it says to cook it with fire and to not boil it, then in Deuteronomy it says they boiled it. Then the author of Chronicles realized this and reconciled the texts by saying they 'boiled' the lamb 'with fire' - a classic rabbinic way of handling such contradiction. I'll never forget that day in Hebrew class, it was used as a somewhat humorous anecdote. –  Daи May 29 at 20:36
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In Biblical Hebrew, the word זֶרַע ("seed") is very similar to its English translation: that is, the word can be either singular or collective. For example, the following verse is an example of the singular noun used in the singular sense, and the second verse following is an example of the singular noun but used in the plural sense.

Gen 4:25 (MT)
.וַיֵּדַע אָדָם עוֹד, אֶת-אִשְׁתּוֹ, וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן, וַתִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ שֵׁת: כִּי שָׁת-לִי אֱלֹהִים, זֶרַע אַחֵר--תַּחַת הֶבֶל, כִּי הֲרָגוֹ קָיִן
And Adam knew his wife again; and she bore a son, and called his name Seth: "for God hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel; for Cain slew him."

The following verse now provides for the same Hebrew word, but in the collective (plural) sense.

Gen 7:3 (MT)
גַּם מֵעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה, זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, לְחַיּוֹת זֶרַע, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ.
of the fowl also of the air, seven and seven, male and female; to keep seed alive upon the face of all the earth.

The context of this verse is all animal life on earth (collective meaning). The word also occurs in the plural to refer to a plurality of seeds.

1 Sam 8:15 (MT)
וְזַרְעֵיכֶם וְכַרְמֵיכֶם, יַעְשֹׂר; וְנָתַן לְסָרִיסָיו, וְלַעֲבָדָיו.
And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants.

In the Hebrew Bible, the plural form of the trilateral stem זָרַע therefore refers to the little grains that are planted in the ground. In other words, the singular form of the triliteral stem refers to humans or animals (or even to the little grain), and so may be used in either the singular or collective sense; that is, the context determines if there is one or more. But in the plural form, the word refers to seeds, which are the little things planted in the ground and/or are eaten as food.

Before concluding, in the Book of Genesis there is one passage, where the use of זֶרַע (in the singular form) appears to refer to the Promised Seed referenced in Gen 3:15. The following verses provide the clue.

Gen 22:16-17 (MT)
וַיֹּאמֶר, בִּי נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי נְאֻם-יְהוָה: כִּי, יַעַן אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה, וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ, אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידֶךָ. כִּי-בָרֵךְ אֲבָרֶכְךָ, וְהַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה אֶת-זַרְעֲךָ כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְכַחוֹל, אֲשֶׁר עַל-שְׂפַת הַיָּם; וְיִרַשׁ זַרְעֲךָ, אֵת שַׁעַר אֹיְבָיו
and said: 'By Myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies

In this verse, the word זֶרַע occurs twice: the first time the word זֶרַע occurs, the word is used in the collective sense, meaning all of Abraham's descendants; however, in the second instance, the word זֶרַע is used in the individual sense. We know this because the Hebrew word for enemies (אֹיֵב) is the last word in the verse, but this plural word contains the possessive suffix, which is in the masculine singular form. That possessive masculine suffix is the tell-tale that the reference to זֶרַע is therefore to an individual, who is a male. This promised "seed" to Abraham in the Book of Genesis now appears to be the same "seed" promised to the woman, who was named Eve.

Finally, the tell-tale indicator of the singular masculine possessive suffix to the plural word enemies (אֹיֵב) in this verse of Genesis is what the Apostle Paul was referring to in his epistle to the Galatians.

Galatians 3:16 (NASB)
16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ.

The Apostle Paul noticed the "jot/tittle" possessive masculine suffix at the end of the last word of the verse in Gen 22:17, which is how he came to the conclusion that the second use of the word זֶרַע in this verse was in reference to the promised seed, who was the Christ. In other words, without the tell-tale indicator of the possessive masculine suffix, one could debate the second iteration of זֶרַע was in reference to the seed of Abraham in the collective sense.

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While I won't argue against the possible interpretation you make of Gen 22:17, your logic is flawed in your grammatical argument being a "smoking gun." The Hebrew word זֶרַע is itself a masculine noun, and so the masculine singular suffix on אֹיֵב can make the phrase just as easily translated "its enemies" (i.e. still referring to a collective "seed"). There is no neuter gender in Hebrew, and the grammatical gender would be enough to explain the masculine suffix. So there is ambiguity (and no "smoking gun") in the grammar alone. That Paul saw a distinction in Gal 3:16 is, however, evident. –  ScottS May 30 at 13:15
    
@ScottS - It was my hope that the opinion of the Apostle Paul would make the logical argument less flawed. –  Joseph May 30 at 14:12
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As I said, the logic is only flawed in stating it as a "smoking gun" in relation to the grammatical structure. The reading you are advocating is certainly one of two possibilities, and backed up by Paul as the correct idea :-). Though as I argued in this answer, the collective seed (believers) is contained in the singular seed (Christ). –  ScottS May 30 at 14:22
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I have removed all references to "smoking gun" from my posting. I would rather be in fellowship rather than to make dogmatic assertions. :) –  Joseph May 31 at 0:24

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