What if it wasn’t an apple?

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | September 25, 2020

What forbidden fruit did Adam and Eve really eat in Eden?

Which fruit did Adam and Eve eat?

An apple, right?

Not necessarily.

Oh, we’re all familiar with artwork that shows a tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Eden — and it holds apples. (However, in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo painted that tree adorned with figs and not apples. That was around the year 1510.)

A snake holds an apple in its mouth, symbolizing the fall of Adam and Eve. But just what type of fruit was the “forbidden fruit?” (Bigstock,com photo illustration)

Even by Michelangelo’s time, though, the apple was making its way into art. One big influence was Albrecht Dürer’s famous 1504 engraving — and his 1507 painting — that showed Adam and Eve with apples and an apple tree.

Lost paradise

A century later, the English poet John Milton wrote “Paradise Lost” and immortalized the apple as the forbidden fruit: “It was out of the rind of one apple tasted, that good and evil leapt forth into the world, like two twins cleaving together.”

But that isn’t what we find in Genesis, chapter three: “It is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it …’” (3:3). And a little later, we are told, “The woman saw that the tree was good for food. … So she took some of its fruit and ate it …” (3:6).

So, where’s the apple? Genesis only says “fruit.”

Bearing seeds inside

The Hebrew word used in Genesis is peri. But the word for “apple” in Hebrew is tappuaH. Peri translates as “a fruit that has its seed inside it.” Lots of fruit bear seeds inside them, not just the apple. In fact, there are pears, cherries and peaches. And, according to Jewish scholars, the “forbidden fruit” could have been any one of them.

Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin at chabad.org explains, “Our sages write that the Torah obscures the identity of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden out of concern that people will constantly point and say, ‘That is the species of fruit that brought death unto the world.’”

Nonetheless, Rabbi Shurpin, and other Jewish scholars, points to several fruits that seem likely candidates as the “forbidden one”: apples, pears, figs, grapes, pomegranate, apricots — and even wheat. (That is because Jewish tradition says that wheat first grew on trees in a ready-to-eat loaf-like form that only changed into a grain plant after the Fall.)

Maybe a citron?

One of the strong contenders in Jewish teaching is the citron, a citrus fruit that is also called etrog. This comes from an Aramaic word for “desire,” because the Bible says that the fruit on the tree “was good for food,” which could mean the whole tree and not just its fruit. Citron is very fragrant and its rind is valued for both food and perfume.

OK, so where did the apple come from?

Some of it came from Greek mythology since, according to Greek mythology, the golden apple was what started the Trojan War. (It started as an argument between three goddesses about who was “the fairest” and thus deserved the gilded fruit.)

But for Christians, we can credit St. Jerome with making the apple into the forbidden fruit.

From 382 to 405 A.D., Jerome translated the Bible, from Greek and Hebrew sources into Latin, which was the common language of the day. That is why his translation is called “the Vulgate.” While Jerome knew Latin and Greek to start, he moved to Jerusalem to also learn Hebrew. (He died in Bethlehem in 420.)

Jerome knew that the Hebrew word peri didn’t mean “apple,” and he knew that the Latin noun malus could be used to mean apple. However, the Latin adjective malus means something completely different: “evil” as in “malice.” Even today, the correct taxonomic name for apple is malus domestica.

Play on words

So St. Jerome was making a statement when he chose to translate peri as malus, a word that he knew had two meanings in Latin. Some would say he did it as a play on words, but it was probably a theological message. Something like: “What tastes good might just end up fooling you.”

Then, as Latin fell out of use as a common language, people forgot there was a play on words and just focused on the apple.

So the next time you see an apple, just remember that Adam and Eve (the “pair” of them) might have had a cornucopia of fruit to choose from.


Sources: Paradise Lost; npr.org; chabad.org; christianitytoday.com; aleteia.org; nationalgeographic.com; dante.udallas.edu; jewishencyclopedia.com; Strong’s Concordance; American Jewish University at aju.edu; and wordsense.eu


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