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Painting of apples by Vinvent Van Gogh

How did the Apple Become the Symbol of Sin?


Sources say that the dreaded biblical fruit may have been a pear, a fig or even a peach.

The first tale in the Bible tells of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden. This was in consequence for having tasted the “forbidden fruit” of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Christian iconography and popular culture represent the fruit as an apple. But a careful reading of the passage leads one to the conclusion that, in fact, the actual fruit is never mentioned in the book. How, then, did the apple become this symbol of temptation and sin?

A standard version of Genesis 3:3-5 says:

But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

According to Robert Appelbaum’s book Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup, and Other Gastronomic Interjections, the confusion may be due to a sort of joke of St. Jerome, who first translated the Bible into the vulgar Latin. (This version is still known as “The Vulgate” even today.) It turns out that the Latin words for apple, and for evil, are the same: malus. According to Appelbaum, the Hebrew word, peri, which was used to refer to the fruit in the Bible, can refer to any type of fruit, a fig, a pomegranate, a grape, or even a peach or a lemon. Some Bible commentators even believe that the forbidden fruit may have been a drink that produced an intoxication in those who drank it. Hence they gained “knowledge of good and evil.”

St. Jerome translated “peri” with the word “malus.” It’s an adjective meaning “evil,” though as a noun, it means “apple,” from trees known even today as Malus pumila. However, as Appelbaum points out, malus may refer not only to the apple, but to any fruit with seeds: pears are a species of malus, as are figs, peaches, and others.

Painting of adam and eve by luchas cranach

In religious iconography, there was no clear consensus for several centuries on exactly what type of fruit it was from this tree of which humanity’s first parents couldn’t eat. Michelangelo painted a fig tree in the Sistine Chapel. Durer depicted an apple tree, as did Lucas Cranach, the Elder. But another Appelbaum hypothesis in explaining the apple’s preeminence over other seeded fruits comes from the English poet, John Milton. His Paradise Lost was published in 1667. For Milton, the semantic ambiguity of the malus should not have been a mystery, versed as he was in ancient languages like Latin and Hebrew. Appelbaum notes that it’s possible Milton appreciated St. Jerome’s joke as a reference to intoxication or drunkenness from apple cider, popular in his own time. Paradise Lost refers on a couple of occasions to the fruit of this problematic tree and refers to it as an apple.

Another possible explanation may come from the Golden Apple of Discord. In Greek mythology, this was the work of the goddess Eris, (a temptress, as Satan had been for the Hebrews). According to the myth, Eris was angry at having not been invited to the wedding of Peleus and Tetis (parents of the great warrior Achilles). She presented the wedding guests with a golden apple which would reveal who among them was “the most beautiful of all.” Three goddesses fought amongst themselves: Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty; Hera, the guardian of the home and childbearing and wife of the great Zeus; and Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus and goddess of wisdom. To settle the dispute, Zeus consulted a Trojan shepherd and mortal, Paris, to choose from among the three goddesses which was the most beautiful. The three goddesses tried to bribe him in turn with new gifts. Finally, Paris decided for Aphrodite, who had promised him the love of the most beautiful woman of all. This was none other than Helena. Helena’s abduction by Paris is the mythical origin of the Trojan War. And thus the apple is also at the center of the most epic dispute in Greek civilization.

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