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Was the Fruit in Eden an Apple?

Illustration for John Milton’s Paradise Lost by Gustave Doré

(adapted from an audio interview, 2013)

That’s a huge question. It definitely was not an apple because apples probably were not indigenous to the region, and when the first humans are kicked out and God makes them clothes; it’s a fig leaf.  So, figs were around. There’s all sorts of theories that the fruit was a pomegranate, maybe was a quince…

But it isn’t specified, the Hebrew word is ‘pri’ which just means fruit. So it’s never identified as anything. Part of the difficulty comes in in the history of translations. So that when the Hebrew text was translated into Greek, in about the third century BCE, after Alexander the Great came in and Hellenized the area, … the word [‘pri’] became karpos, which is “fruit ”; so still, it was not specified. 

Then, centuries later, when it was translated into Latin for Western Europe when the Roman Empire had taken over, when Latin was the language then, the word used for “fruit” then was malum, which is a tricky word in Latin because it could have referred to “apple” or “fruit.” 

The word fructis, for “fruit,” didn’t come along until later. So all those early Latin words like malum or pomum meant both “fruit” and “apple”.  Because apple was often seen as the archetypical fruit, the way it is in English today, you see a new fruit, and you don’t know what to name it, you name it after the apple—so the pineapple—which has no relationship to an apple, but it just sort of means “piney-fruit.” So “apple” and “fruit” historically are very difficult to distinguish. 

So in part the fruit [in the garden of Eden] was understood as an apple simply because the words were often used both ways. In part, malum is a beautiful pun, with evil; so malum evil/malum apple … this is an evil fruit; it lent itself to it only in Latin; that does not exist in Greek; it does not exist in Hebrew. But it was an easy pairing. 

  • Ina Lipkowitz

    Ina Lipkowitz is a lecturer in the Department of Literature at MIT where she teaches literature and biblical studies. She is the author of Words to Eat By: Five Foods and the Culinary History of the English Language (St. Martin’s Press, 2011). She is also involved in interfaith education and works with temples, churches, and mosques, introducing Jews, Christians, and Muslims to each other’s faiths.