Thursday, November 06, 2014

"Fruit of knowledge" was no apple

My elder son is now taught at school creation myths, including the Genesis. In one of his textbooks, the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge was described and painted as an apple, and this annoyed me. I do not claim any expertise on the Bible, but at least I know that the fruit is not identified in the original text. And naturally, having read some careless fiction narratives about pre-Columbian Europeans eating potatoes, I even asked myself whether apples were cultivated in the Middle East at that age.

Here is what I found:

"[T]he fruit of the tree in this passage has for almost 2,000 years been painted, sculpted and described as an apple. But the text speaks only of an undefined “fruit.” How did we get to the apple, of all things, which was unknown in the Near East until a century ago? In Jerome’s fifth-century Latin translation of the Bible, known as the Vulgate, the word for “evil,” with which the snake’s speech ends (Genesis 3:5), is malum. Malum can also mean apple, and so this false apple was projected back three lines, to end up ultimately in Eve’s hands, where it never was in the first place."

(Lapide, Pinchas. "Touching the Forbidden Fruit." Bible Review 4 (1988): 42-43, quoted by Paul J. Kissling, Genesis, p. 193.)

There may be other reasons besides being "lost in translation". The apple has an important place in Indo-European mythology (the golden apples of the Hesperides, the Judgement of Paris, the apples of Idun) and folklore (e.g. Snowwhite). So it was natural for Indo-European Christians, after appropriating the Hebrew Bible, to transplant this culturally important fruit onto it. However, I think today's authors of textbooks should be more accurate and explain old errors, rather than perpetuating them.


Bill said...


Excellent and eloquent article!

As you point out, not everything is true just because someone but it in a textbook a thousand years ago and it's been repeated ever since. When I first moved to Alaska I was fascinated by the notion of making cocktails with iceberg ice. I announced one day that I intended to skiff over to the face of the glacier and harvest ice from a berg. The locales warned me not to get too close. "But 80% of it is underwater. It should be stable." There were intense I their denial and warned me that they flip over. So a made sure to pick a small to chip ice from and as warned did not the off to it. As warned another iceberg rolled over while I was there. It was the size of y first house! In retrospect it makes sense here. The water is often warm that the air, so the berg melts under water while ice and snow accumulates on the top int the frigid air above

Maya M said...

Thank you for the comment! What an adventure it must have been! I'll keep this in mind if I ever get near icebergs!