What Fruit Grew on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil?

The Fall of Adam and Eve, by Michaelangelo
The Fall of Adam and Eve, by Michaelangelo

After God created Adam and put him in the garden of Eden “to dress it and keep it” the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree in the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” That garden was a paradise. The only chore Adam and Eve had was to “dress it and keep it” and the weather was so beautiful that the young couple walked around naked. Of course there was that singular odd tree with its deadly fruit. Whatever the fruit was, it gave you knowledge of morality and death.

The story of Adam and Eve doesn’t name the fruit that grew on that famous tree. Some Talmudic scholars have said it was a grape and, indeed, there’s a Slavonic tradition, perhaps inherited from Jewish epigraphical texts, that says it was a grape. Other commentators have declared it was a fig, since the fig tree is the only other tree mentioned by name as growing in the garden. The fruit isn’t specified, but if you want to portray the fall of man in a painting, you have to decide what fruit to show.

Depictions of Adam and Eve began ages ago in illuminated manuscripts, wall paintings and carvings. Our richest trove of images, and certainly those most familiar to us, come from painters who flourished during the Renaissance. Perhaps the best known picture of Adam and Eve receiving the fruit from the serpent is Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel. The full painting occupies a panel of the gorgeous chapel ceiling; the tree of knowledge divides the panel into two parts: on the left we see Adam and Eve receiving the fruit, on the right we see them being driven from the Garden.

The figs themselves may not be clear to the casual viewer, but the leaves of the tree are unmistakably fig leaves. Another interesting feature is the sex of the serpent. Eve has stretched her hand upward toward the serpent who has leaned down, revealing her breast. Michelangelo wasn’t the first to portray the serpent as a woman; that tradition began long before the Renaissance. And, in passing, we should note that for centuries figs have symbolized, or suggested, female genitalia. Well, maybe not for you, but for generations of people in the fig-growing lands around the Mediterranean.

For contemporary Christians, the fruit that grew on the tree of knowledge of good and evil was an apple. Below is small part of a larger painting by Lucas Cranach, the Elder, showing Adam and Eve in paradise about to make a big mistake under the tree of knowledge. The tree is thick with leaves and loaded with apples that glow up there like luminous glass baubles on a Christmas tree. The snake is not only female, but a rather pretty and engaging woman.

Adam and Eve in Paradise by Lucas Cranach
Adam and Eve in Paradise by Lucas Cranach

The idea that the fruit that grew on the forbidden tree was an apple begins with Jerome —Saint Jerome to many — a brilliant and interesting master of languages. Most authoritative Biblical texts were in Greek, which had been a common language in lands around the Mediterranean, but many people were speaking and writing in Latin, so there were Latin translations going around with different versions of the Greek text. Jerome wanted to get the finest Greek texts and translate them properly into the most accurate Latin. He certainly was the best man to do it — in fact, he did do most of it himself — and in time it became the standard Latin translation., the Vulgate.

To translate the word fruit from Greek to Latin, Jerome chose the word malum,  a Latin word that was commonly used to mean fruit like apples or pears or fruits of similar size that grew on trees. The word malum also means evil. As for that deadly apple, it stuck a while in Adam’s throat as he ate it, leaving it’s mark on males ever since, the Adam’s apple.

A rather tender and affectionate Adam and Eve about to make a big mistake. Again, the painter is Lucas Cranach.

As it happened, God had made the serpent “more subtle than any beast of the field” and the serpent struck up a conversation with Eve, asking her if God had told her not to eat of every tree, and when she told the serpent about God’s warning about the one tree in the midst of the garden, the serpent said, “Ye shall not surely die. For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” Eve was tempted to broaden and deepen her knowledge of morality. Or, as the story has it, “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise…” She took it and ate it. Prior to that moment, the young couple had been walking around naked, as naive as children. But now they knew about good and evil, so their nakedness made them ashamed and they hid their privates with fig leaves.

Oh, wait, one more thing! That same apple with a bite taken out of it has been so sanitized that it no longer is associated with evil and death, but now symbolizes pure knowledge. Indeed, the name of the tree is casually referred to as the tree of knowledge — of good and evil has been dropped. Thus we have the ubiquitous logo of Apple, Inc. the computer company. The original Apple logo depicted Isaac Newton under an apple tree and had nothing at all to do with the garden of Eden. In late 1976, Apple introduced the rainbow apple with a bite taken out of it. (OK, class. Can you think of a story in Genesis that has a rainbow in it? Yes? And what did the rainbow symbolize?) Since 1998 the company has used the bitten apple in monochrome.