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Where did Eve get that apple?

Image result for garden of eden apple

Quick question: without opening your Bible or Koran, answer this: what kind of apple was it that Eve gave to Adam in the Garden of Eden?  Was it a Honeycrisp?  A Fuji?  A Granny Smith?  Trick question: we don’t know what kind of apple appeared in the story because we don’t even know what the fruit in the story was supposed to be.  We’ve long heard the story of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and if you’re a Westerner, chances are what springs to mind is Eve giving Adam an apple.  But there’s no version of the Bible or the Koran—both of which contain this story—that names the fruit.  So why do we make this association?

Both Genesis 2:17 and Koran 2:35 refer to the Tree of Knowledge, but in neither version is the kind of tree even hinted at by the author.  It could well have been an apple, but it could just as easily have been something else.  Apple cultivation predates the writing of Genesis, which was written in the 6th or 5th century BCE.  (The Koran, of course, was written about a thousand years later.)  Apple cultivation is believed to date at least to the year 6500 BCE, but that wouldn’t be relevant to the story, since the Adam and Eve story is supposed to predate the cultivation of anything.  The belief that the forbidden fruit was an apple is more of a Jewish and Christian tradition.  Among Muslims, the traditional idea is that the forbidden fruit was more a kind of wheat than a tree, though this doesn’t match with the story in the Koran any more than an apple does with the Bible.  A good Muslim who knows the Koran won’t get so specific any more than a good Jew or Christian who knows the book of Genesis would.  What the fruit was is not important in the Islamic tradition, or in the Jewish or Christian ones, either, so if you’re looking for meaning in these religions, it’s not something worth dwelling on.

To understand where the image of the apple in Genesis comes from, you need to understand some etymology.  The Old English word æppel, the ancestor of the modern apple, probably better translates as fruit than as any specific kind of fruit.  Most European languages of the time had the same feature: in Old Frisian, old Saxon and Old Dutch, the word was appel; in Old norse it was eple; in Old High German it was apful; in German, it was (and still is) Apfel.  The French word pomme means apple today, but it, too, once had the generic meaning fruit, as did the Catalan word poma, both of which descend from the Latin pomum.  The Old Slavonic jabloko worked the same way, and is the forerunner of the Polish jabłko and the Russian яблоко.

As late as the 17th century, it was still common to use the word apple to indicate any kind of fruit, generically.  Bible texts written in Latin would have used the word pomum, so when a priest or some other theologian was relating the story, he would likely have just said æppel or eple or pomme or jabloko or whatever the local word was.  As this generic term for fruit migrated to having a specific meaning, the way the Garden of Eden story looked also changed in the minds of Bible readers.  The reason the popular image people carried in their heads started to settle on a specific fruit (among Europeans, at least) is that during this time, fine art often turned to Bible stories.  Renaissance painters would likely have had both the now-archaic generic definition of apple and the modern, specific definition of apple in their minds.  So when they painted the Garden of Eden, it was just easier to favor the one that has a more concrete image.  Why not paint an apple instead of imagining what some unknown fruit looked like?  Audiences would still get the meaning if there were a nice, red apple there, so if the point of art is to convey an idea, then why not?

As far as the original story in Genesis is concerned, a painting of Adam and Eve with an apple is as accurate as a painting of Adam and Eve with a banana or a pineapple or a kumquat.  Another thing that doesn’t quite match the Bible story is the convenient appearance of strategically placed fig leaves, which are another staple of Adam and Eve art.  How did that happen?  Well, let’s just chalk that up to miracles and leave it at that.