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!