Was the “forbidden fruit” in the Garden of Eden actually an apple?

The reference to the forbidden fruit in the Bible and the story of how Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden are well known and used in all sorts of modern contexts. But was the forbidden fruit an apple or some other fruit? Why was the apple chosen to represent the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Here are some explanations to this old and confusing question.

These words, from chapter II of The First Book of Moses Where Genesishave become synonymous with the “forbidden fruit”, i.e. the apple:

“And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree in the garden thou shalt eat freely; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat; for the day you eat it, you will surely die.

Believe it or not, the apple has been misused as a forbidden fruit in popular theological culture. A quick reading of the Bible tells us that Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden for not resisting the forbidden fruit, and thus fell into temptation after the serpent guarding the tree of knowledge succeeded to manipulate Eve to deceive Adam. The problem is that the ancient Hebrew Bible does not specify which fruit was the forbidden fruit, leaving it generic. So why the apple?

In this painting, The Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man or The Fall of Man painted by Peter Paul Rubens (figures) and Jan Brueghel the Elder (landscape and animals), the forbidden fruit tree gate of many different fruits. (Peter-Paul Rubens / Public domain )

Unravel the forbidden fruit apple pattern

In the next chapter of Genesis in the Old Testament, this stanza describes the temptation of Adam and Eve:

“When the wife saw that the tree was good for food and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate it. She also gave it to her husband, and he ate it.”

These two phrases have been used since they were first written as a metaphorical reference to any indulgence or pleasure that the dogmas of religion deem illegal or immoral. The Hebrew word used here for the fruit is “peri”, a generic term referring to the fruit hanging from the Tree of Knowledge. And they are still heavily referenced today in conversations, novels, and movies.

Modern scholars and historians believe that bastardy and possible misinterpretation of Latin could answer the question “Why the apple?” The Latin word mălum means “evil”, while the Latin word mālum, from the Greek μῆλον, means “apple”.

The forbidden fruit translation error may have occurred due to an incident in the 4th century AD, when Pope Damasus ordered Jerome, a prominent scholar of Scripture, to translate the Hebrew Bible into Latin. So says Robert Appelbaum, Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Uppsala University in Sweden. “Word [“malum”] in Latin translates to a word in English, apple, which also represented any fruit…with a kernel of seeds in the middle and flesh around it. But it was a generic term [for fruit] too,” Appelbaum said. Live Science .

The translation, which included the language spoken by the “common man” and commissioned by the Catholic Church, is called Vulgate. As mentioned before, “peri” could have been any fruit: a fig, a grape, an apricot or an orange. Jerome translated peri as malus, which at the time referred to any fleshy, seed-bearing fruit.

A famous Roman statue of Aphrodite with the forbidden fruit in her left hand made with Parian marble from the Imperial period (late 1st century or early 2nd century AD) in the Louvre collection.  (Jean-Pol GRANDMONT / CC BY 4.0)

A famous Roman statue of Aphrodite with the forbidden fruit in her left hand made with Parian marble from the Imperial period (late 1st century or early 2nd century AD) in the Louvre collection. (Jean-Pol GRANDMONT / DC BY 4.0 )

The apple in classical mythology

Despite its facetious biblical origins, the apple has continued to be the forbidden fruit in popular culture with connections in other mythologies. An apple started the legendary Greek myth of the Trojan War. In Norse mythology, the gods believed their immortality was a product of apples. In the Arabian Nights, a magic apple from Samarkand cures all human illnesses, long before the 1866 advertising campaign told us: “an apple a day keeps a doctor away”.

In ancient Greece, Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility, is said to have created the apple, presenting it to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Thus began a practice of newlyweds in Athens eating an apple, to increase fertility, before entering the nuptial chamber.

The most famous apple reference of all would have to be the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, in the private orchard of the goddess Hera. At the wedding of Zeus and Hera, branches with golden apples were the wedding gifts, again related to sex and fertility.

One of the twelve labors of Heracles (Hercules) was to steal the golden apples of the Hesperides from Hera’s orchard. This involved tricking Atlas into retrieving the apples for him, while Heracles held the sky in his absence.

The shape of an apple can also be linked to the shape of a woman’s breast, which could be another reason why the apple is a symbol of fertility and not really a forbidden fruit if you are getting married or are married.

Albrecht Dürer's Adam and Eve painted in 1507 AD prominently features the forbidden fruit connecting the two panels with the almost forgotten serpent in the upper right corner.  (Albrecht Dürer / Public Domain)

Albrecht Dürer’s Adam and Eve painted in 1507 AD prominently features the forbidden fruit connecting the two panels with the almost forgotten serpent in the upper right corner. (Albrecht Durer / Public domain )

The apple in medieval Europe and popular culture

The apple became a major theme in post-classical Western European art and culture at least by the 12th century AD. Renaissance paintings also featured the apple. The famous German artist Albrecht Durer first couple engraving from 1504 shows Adam and Eve next to an apple tree. In 1533, Lucas Cranach, borrowing from Dürer, depicted a glowing apple resembling a ruby, with a luminous Adam and Eve in the center, in his painting titled Adam and Eve.

Other great Renaissance artists also used the forbidden fruit theme but chose fruits that were not apples. In Altarpiece of Ghent by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, 1432, the fruit was a lemon. In Eve tempted by the serpent , by the Italian Defedente Ferrari in the early 1520s, the fruit was an apricot. And in The fall of man by Peter Paul Rubens, 1628-29, it was a pomegranate. Michelangelo’s masterpiece, The Sistine Chapel, presents a fresco with a snake coiled around a fig tree.

What sealed the deal for the apple as a forbidden fruit in Western consciousness was the seminal work of English poet John Milton. lost paradise (1667). In this work, Milton used the word “apple” twice to refer to the forbidden fruit. During this voluminous 10,000 line poem, Milton vividly describes the apple “as being fuzzy on the outside, and exceedingly juicy and sweet and ambrosial”, as Eve takes the mythical bite. In his earlier work of 1644 titled Areopagitic Milton described the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil as an apple.

Both of these works cemented the apple’s status as a forbidden fruit and were strongly tied to color to create Christian imagery. The red (blood color), round (fertility), golden (greed) and sweet (desire) apple is the symbol of temptation and sin. Interestingly, the Islamic representation of the forbidden fruit has always been a fig or an olive.

Top image: “Forbidden fruit” was written in the Bible in reference to the “apple” of Eden which led to Adam and Eve being banished from paradise for tasting the Tree of Knowledge. But was the forbidden fruit really an apple or some other fruit? Source: funstarts33 /Adobe Stock

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