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Adam, Eve and the apple that probably never was

The traditional English Christmas carol “Adam lay ybounden” contains the lines:


“And all was for an apple

An apple that he took

As clerkes finden

Written in their book”


The carol dates from the early 15th century and is just one example of the commonly held belief that the “forbidden fruit” of the Garden of Eden (Genesis Chapter 3) was an apple. However, this is not stated in Genesis, and there have been many other suggestions as to what it might have been.

Fruits mentioned in this context in ancient Jewish texts have included figs, grapes and tamarinds, and some Muslim scholars have suggested that Eve gave Adam an olive. However, this was not an important issue for Jews and Muslims, who have traditionally been unconcerned with pictorial representation of religious scenes, but that was not the case with Christians, for whom a picture was always worth at least a thousand words.

If an artist was going to portray the scene in the Garden of Eden, with Eve being tempted by a serpent to pick a fruit and offer it to Adam, the fruit had to be of a particular kind. In the early church, the grape was preferred in the Latin-speaking west, but the Greek-speaking east preferred the fig.


(The scene as imagined by Lucas Cranach the Elder)

A third option – namely the apple – gained currency quite early on, possibly helped by the fact that the Latin word “malum” can mean either “apple” or “evil” (although there is a subtle difference in pronunciation depending on which meaning is intended).

As Christianity moved into northern Europe, depictions of apple trees in Garden of Eden scenes became almost universal, as opposed to figs or grapes, which were not common plants in that region whereas apple trees were.

Added to this, the apple had a long history as a mystical symbol, and early Christian missionaries were quite happy to turn a pagan symbol into a Christian one when it suited them to do so.

By the 12th century, the apple was firmly established in the Christian imagination as the fruit that led to the Fall.

However, one thing that is absolutely certain is that no “clerke”would have found “apple” written in their book, because – if that book was the Bible – it wasn’t!

What do you think?

17 points

Written by Indexer

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  1. I agree entirely. Today, it is easiest to refer to the fruit of the forbidden tree as an “apple”, but most theological studies I’ve seen are pretty clear that it wasn’t an apple. I don’t subscribe to the fig idea, either. Here’s why: Although the bible isn’t clear on this point, the garden of Eden likely contained many thousands of kinds of trees that produced edible fruit, as well many other edible plants. This isn’t a stretch because there are currently thousands of kinds of trees that bear edible fruit, not counting cultivars encouraged by man.

    All of these trees reproduced the same way as all trees reproduce today, except one. That one tree apparently produced fruit but didn’t reproduce. That isn’t impossible, simply because nothing is impossible to God. Genesis *is* specific in that there was only one tree that God commanded Adam and Eve to leave alone, so it would make little sense for it to be simply one of many other trees that were otherwise identical. That the tree was good, there is also no doubt. However, if it was different from all other trees, the fruit of that tree was also no doubt different than that of all other trees. In fact, today it is hard to imagine a tree producing edible fruits without producing seeds for reproduction.

    Thus, it must have been different than figs, apples, pears, etc (all of which have seeds). It is also a moot point. The original sin wasn’t the eating of a specific fruit. The original sin was disobeying God’s command not to eat it. The kind of tree it was and what the fruit looked like is immaterial. If the one command had been, “Don’t throw rocks in that stream”, discussion about what the stream looked like or what the composition of the stone that was thrown into the stream would be totally meritless. It really doesn’t make any difference since that isn’t the point.

    • The point is surely the symbolism – unless you really do believe that there was an actual garden and that Adam and Eve actually existed – and there are all sorts of reasons for doubting that!

      Artists – especially in the medieval period – were commissioned by the Church to make the Bible stories “live”. This was because the Bible was only available in languages that ordinary people could not understand and all services were conducted in Latin. The stories had either to be told to people by preachers or shown to them in other ways, which is where the artists came in. The symbols had therefore to be given reality, and once the genie of “the tree was an apple” was out of the bottle it was impossible to put it back.

  2. Nice story 🙂 My reading is that the tree is unique, just as the ‘Tree of life’ is. The story is quite specific in other aspects, such as the leaves they covered their nakedness with were not just any leaves, but fig leaves. As far as I can see, there is no importance at all in the type of leaves they used, so how much more important is the type of tree! I’m quite confident that both of those ‘special’ trees are unique.
    As an aside, isn’t it interesting that it took the serpent to tell Adam and Eve the truth about the tree’s powers, whereas God was quite content to leave that information unmentioned (as in the case of the Tree of life too)?

    • Well, these are of course all stories told by people who had reasons for writing as they did at the time that they did. Later interpreters have added extra meanings for their own purposes.

      I agree – God does not come out at all well from this story, and the same is true time and time again. When it comes to inventing deities, we humans seem to make terrible job of it!

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