Over at NPR, Nina Martyris explains how the forbidden fruit of Genesis 3 came to be an apple.
Short version: a Latin pun by St. Jerome and an epic poem by John Milton.
In order to explain, we have to go all the way back to the fourth century A.D., when Pope Damasus ordered his leading scholar of scripture, Jerome, to translate the Hebrew Bible into Latin. Jerome’s path-breaking, 15-year project, which resulted in the canonical Vulgate, used the Latin spoken by the common man. As it turned out, the Latin words for evil and apple are the same: malus.
In the Hebrew Bible, a generic term, peri, is used for the fruit hanging from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, explains Robert Appelbaum, who discusses the biblical provenance of the apple in his book Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup, and Other Gastronomic Interjections.
“Peri could be absolutely any fruit,” he says. “Rabbinic commentators variously characterized it as a fig, a pomegranate, a grape, an apricot, a citron, or even wheat. Some commentators even thought of the forbidden fruit as a kind of wine, intoxicating to drink.”
When Jerome was translating the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” the word malus snaked in. A brilliant but controversial theologian, Jerome was known for his hot temper, but he obviously also had a rather cool sense of humor.
“Jerome had several options,” says Appelbaum, a professor of English literature at Sweden’s Uppsala University. “But he hit upon the idea of translating peri as malus, which in Latin has two very different meanings. As an adjective, malus means bad or evil. As a noun it seems to means an apple, in our own sense of the word, coming from the very common tree now known officially as the Malus pumila. So Jerome came up with a very good pun.”
The story doesn’t end there. “To complicate things even more,” says Appelbaum, “the word malus in Jerome’s time, and for a long time after, could refer to any fleshy seed-bearing fruit. A pear was a kind of malus. So was the fig, the peach, and so forth.”
Which explains why Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco features a serpent coiled around a fig tree. But the apple began to dominate Fall artworks in Europe after the German artist Albrecht Dürer’s famous 1504 engraving depicted the First Couple counterpoised beside an apple tree. It became a template for future artists such as Lucas Cranach the Elder, whose luminous Adam and Eve painting is hung with apples that glow like rubies.
Milton, then, was only following cultural tradition. But he was a renowned Cambridge intellectual fluent in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, who served as secretary for foreign tongues to Oliver Cromwell during the Commonwealth. If anyone was aware of the malus pun, it would be him. And yet he chose to run it with it. Why?
Appelbaum says that Milton’s use of the term “apple” was ambiguous. “Even in Milton’s time the word had two meanings: either what was our common apple, or, again, any fleshy seed-bearing fruit. Milton probably had in mind an ambiguously named object with a variety of connotations as well as denotations, most but not all of them associating the idea of the apple with a kind of innocence, though also with a kind of intoxication, since hard apple cider was a common English drink.”
It was only later readers of Milton, says Appelbaum, who thought of “apple” as “apple” and not any seed-bearing fruit. For them, the forbidden fruit became synonymous with the malus pumila. As a widely read canonical work, Paradise Lost was influential in cementing the role of apple in the Fall story.
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