The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: A

Previous Index Next

Apple the "forbidden fruit"?, is the

"And the LORD God commanded the man, 'You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die' " (Gen 2:16,17).

"When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it" (Gen 3:6).

What was the "forbidden fruit" in the Garden of Eden? Although the type of fruit is never identified specifically in the Bible, and Jewish traditions refer to the fig and the grape, popular European Christian tradition has held that it was an apple that Eve incited Adam to share with her.

In his "Paradise Lost" (c 1677), John Milton writes of the "apple" as the forbidden fruit -- which may have had profound influence on later thought.

It is said that medieval carols quite often referred to the "apple" as the fruit of the tree of knowledge. This tradition was probably solidified by artistic renderings of the fall from Eden, featuring an apple because it was the fruit most readily available to artists.

The influence of pagan mythology was strong also, and its symbolism was always being absorbed into an apostate Christianity. For example, there was supposed to be a golden apple from the garden of the Hesperides, which Paris, prince of Troy, gave to Aphrodite, goddess of love, in preference to Athena and Hera.

There remains a longstanding belief also in the aphrodisiacal qualities, as well as the romantic symbolism, of the apple.

Another reason for the adoption of the apple as a Christian symbol of the fall in Eden is that, in Latin, the words for "apple" and for "evil" are identical ("malum"). This might also explain why the apple is often used to symbolize the fall into sin, or sin itself.

[AH Thorneloe, in Tes 4:178, writes: "The word ['tappuwach': 'apple' in KJV] is rendered in the Septuagint by [the Greek] 'melon', and both this and the equivalent Latin word 'malum' were capable of being applied to other fruits besides the apple. The Greek word was originally applied to any kind of large fruit, but became gradually confined to the apple. Today, of course, we give the name melon to an entirely different thing: an illustration of the wandering of the names of plants, which is often almost as extensive as the wanderings of the plants themselves!"]

(We shall return to his point -- about the wanderings of the names of plants -- in a moment.)

The larynx in the human throat has been called the "Adam's apple" because of a notion that the forbidden fruit stuck in the throat of Adam.


Against all this, what does the Bible have to say about the apple?

The Hebrew "tappuwach" is probably derived from the Hebrew root meaning "scent, breath" which is related to the Arabic root meaning "fragrant scent" (HAL). Hence, the term refers to a fruit with a fragrant scent. The term occurs four times in Song (Song 2:3,5; 7:8; 8:5) and twice outside (Pro 25:11; Joe 1:12). Although the KJV translates this, uniformly, as "apple", there is no certainty -- and a good deal of uncertainty -- about this identification.

The word "tappuwach" is "sometimes associated with the 'apple' tree, but while domesticated apple trees are now found in Israel, wild specimens are not believed to have grown there in biblical times since it is a tree native to the northern hemisphere. Apricots, however, grow in warmer climes and are native to China; they have long been abundant in Israel and most probably were introduced in Bible times. Apricots in Cyprus are still known as 'golden apples' [a possible reference to Pro 25:11?]" (ABD).

There is indeed some question as to which fruit tree is intended here. Older rabbinical writers seem to have used the Hebrew word "tappuwach" to refer to any fragrant, globular fruit.

On the one hand, NETn assumes that it is the apple, adding this comment: "Apple trees were not native to Palestine and had to be imported and cultivated. To find a cultivated apple tree growing in the forest among other wild trees would be quite unusual; the apple tree would stand out and be a delightful surprise. Like a cultivated apple tree, the Lover was unique and stood out among all other men. In ancient Near Eastern love literature, the apple tree was a common symbol for romantic love and sexual fertility. The apple tree motif is used in the song in a similar manner (Song 8:5). Likewise, the motif of apples is used as a symbol of fertility (Joel 1:12) and sexual desire (Song 2:5,7,9)."

But this may be assuming too much. Other authorities suggest that "tappuwach" signifies the apricot (NEB), as well as the quince, the citron (or other citrus trees -- such as orange, lemon, grapefruit, or lime), the plum, or the pomegranate -- all of which, in contrast to the apple, were and are indigenous to Palestine (cf Xd 56:450).

HB Tristam, in his book "The Land of Israel", writes: "Everywhere the apricot is common: perhaps it is, with the exception of the fig, the most abundant fruit of the country. In highlands and lowlands alike, by the shores of the Mediterranean and the banks of the Jordan, under the heights of Lebanon, in the recesses of Galilee, and in the glades of Gilead, the apricot flourishes, and yields a crop of prodigious abundance. Its characteristics meet every condition of the 'tappuach' of scripture. Near Damascus, and on the banks of the Barada, we have pitched our tents under its shade, and spread our carpets secure from the rays of the sun (Song 2:3). There can scarcely be a more deliciously perfumed fruit than the apricot (Song 7:8), and what fruit can better fit the epithet of Solomon, 'apples of gold in pictures of silver,' than this golden fruit as its branches bend under the weight in their setting of bright yet pale foliage."

Even if we are not sure which fruit tree is intended in these "apple" passages, in any case the symbolism and the lessons involved remain relatively intact.


There may be another, even more fundamental, reason for this "mistaken" identification of the "forbidden fruit" as an "apple":

In "The Adventures of English", Melvyn Bragg writes that -- in the 200 to 300 years after the Norman Conquest (1066) -- French words "invaded" the English language in great numbers. But as time went by, many such competing words came to achieve a sort of "peaceful coexistence" with one another, perhaps even developing nuances that differentiated the English from the French ever so slightly: eg, the English "house" and the French "mansion", the English "start" and the French "commence", the English "bit" and the French "morsel", the English "freedom" and the French "liberty".

This process of elimination / accommodation / modification affected the Old English "appel", which became the modern "apple". In earlier times, it was used to mean any kind of fruit, indeed of any other round object. This broader usage survives today in all sorts of words and expressions: pineapple, oak apple, balsam apple, etc; "apple" as describing, colloquially, a baseball; and, to cite a Bible example, "the apple of one's eye" (which of course has nothing to do with the fruit called an apple, except that the pupil of the eye is round).

"Apple" as a word was not killed off by the French "invasion"; it was wounded, but survived! As the French equivalent, "fruit" (from the Latin "fructus"), began to take over (coming to mean ANY and ALL kinds of fruit), the broader use of "apple" receded until at last it practically disappeared (except for vestiges, as above). Nevertheless, it retained its hold in Modern English principally to designate one particular fruit -- the produce of what the dictionary calls "rosaceous trees cultivated in temperate zones, of the genus 'Malus' " (ie, our modern "apple").

This suggests an interesting point: the identification of the "forbidden fruit" with an apple may not have been so much a wild guess, as -- in the beginning, at least -- the employment of the older English usage of "apple" to mean "any fruit". Possible even Milton, as late as the 17th century, affected by the King James Version (c 1610), and using poetic license, used "apple" in "Paradise Lost" in a different sense than we use the MODERN word "apple". Maybe he even had a good idea the "apple" WAS NOT really an "apple", so to speak -- but perhaps an apricot, a fig, or a plum, or even some other fruit of which we have no knowledge at all today!

Of course, over time, as current usage moves further and further from Old English, and even from King James English, such little confusions proliferate. (They may even have begun practically from the time the KJV was published.) Just such a confusion seems to have developed over the "apple" in the Garden of Eden. It is a cautionary tale, then: do not be misled by archaic language, in the KJV, for example, but check modern versions and dictionaries and concordances.

Previous Index Next