Apples and oranges

Well now way back in the Bible
Temptations always come along
There’s always somebody tempting
Somebody into doing something they know is wrong
Well they tempt you, man, with silver
And they tempt you, sir, with gold
And they tempt you with the pleasure
That the flesh does surely hold
They say Eve tempted Adam with an apple
But man I ain’t going for that
I know it was her pink Cadillac …

— Bruce Springsteen, “Pink Cadillac”

I’m reading Rachel Held Evans’ Evolving in Monkey Town. It’s a lovely, candid and generous book and one of my favorites in the burgeoning genre of younger memoirs about recovering from evangelical childhood.*

Describing the intense, unyieldingly correct faith of her childhood, Held Evans writes:

I was the nutcase kid who removed wise men figurines from manger scenes at Christmas to more accurately depict the historical time line of Advent. I gently corrected my Sunday school teacher when she referred to Jonah getting swallowed up by the whale (everyone knows that the word is literally translated “big fish”) or referenced the forbidden apple in the garden of Eden (which was more likely some sort of Middle Eastern fruit, like a fig).

Held Evans is able to look back and laugh at her insistence on such “corrections” because she realizes now that they were based on a misplaced certainty. I remember such certainty, too, and how it led to odd speculations about things like the “historic” location of the garden of Eden or the precise identity of the forbidden fruit.

So let’s correct one of those corrections. The fruit in the story of the Garden of Eden was neither an apple nor a fig. Nor was it a pomegranate or a grape. The story just says “fruit,” and to ask what kind of fruit the story actually refers to is to misread the story, transforming it through that word “actually” into the historical account it never claims itself to be. That’s not how the story presents itself and it’s not something the story allows itself to be. That’s not what this story is for.

Imagine someone leaving a performance of Hamlet and dismissing the play as worthless because the final scene just wasn’t funny. On the one hand, that criticism is valid. Hamlet has some very funny bits, but the ending is a real downer and once the final duel starts, you almost never hear anyone in the audience laughing. But on the other hand this complaint is simply confused. It’s based on misreading what kind of story the play is telling and judging it as though it were some other kind of story than what it is.

Trying to validate the story of the garden of Eden by deducing its historical “details” — what kind of fruit? where was the location of the garden? — is the same sort of error. It’s as foolishly beside-the-point as complaining that no one laughs at the end of Hamlet.

So, then, where did the popular notion of an apple come from? How did this come to be the prevalent idea when we picture this story? I suppose that painters or sculptors portraying scenes from this story had to settle on some identity for this fruit — but what led them to choose the apple?

Cecil Adams has an excellent discussion of the history of this idea on The Straight Dope: “Was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden an apple?

Genesis doesn’t mention apples, but Proverbs 25:11 says a timely word is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. More significantly, in the Song of Solomon the apple is an erotic symbol indicating sweetness, desire, and the female breast, which gives you an idea how things are starting to go, metaphorwise.

Early Christian scholars often took the forbidden fruit to be an apple, possibly because of the irresistible pun suggested by the Latin malum, which means both “apple” and “evil.” At least one early Latin translation of the bible uses “apple” instead of “fruit.” A contributing factor no doubt was that apples were a lot more popular in Europe than in the Middle East, where it’s generally too hot for them to thrive.

… Still, the apple wasn’t the unanimous choice for forbidden fruit. Carved depictions of Adam and Eve with apples are found in early Christian catacombs and on sarcophagi. The apple was the favored representation of the forbidden fruit in Christian art in France and Germany beginning around the 12th century. But Byzantine and Italian artists tended to go with the fig.

In fact, you can read Christian iconography as a long, twilight struggle between figs and apples over which is the alpha temptation symbol. The apple has a lot to recommend it: red (blood) or golden (greed), round (fertility) and sweet-tasting (desire). The fig, on the other hand, has a certain phallic look, noted as far back as the ancient Greeks, who, admittedly, thought everything looked phallic. By the Renaissance, almost simultaneously we have Albrecht Dürer depicting Adam and Eve and the serpent with an apple (1504, 1507), and Michelangelo equipping the same cast with figs on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (circa 1510).

Ultimately the apple prevailed. In Areopagitica (1644), Milton explicitly described the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil as an apple, and that was pretty much the ball game. Islamic tradition, however, commonly represents the forbidden fruit as the fig or olive.

If we’re going to insist on identifying the forbidden fruit from the story in Genesis, then forget about apples and figs. I prefer to go with another suggestion by some early rabbis — the citron. Adams notes that this idea was based on a pun — the Hebrew word for citron is etrog, which sounds like ragag, or “desire.”

But I like the idea of the citron because it’s a citrus fruit, which raises some interesting possibilities for this story. This occurred to me while reding another of those recovering-evangelical memoirs, Jonathan Dudley’s Broken Words. In his chapter on evolution, Dudley notes:

The reason that humans, gorillas and chimps need to consume vitamin C in their diets — while lower mammals, including primates further down the evolutionary tree, don’t — is that humans, gorillas and chimps all have the same, inactivating mutation in a gene needed to make vitamin C. From an evolutionary perspective, the gene was mutated and rendered nonfunctional in an ape ancestor, then passed on to its evolutionary descendants, including humans. From a creationist perspective, God gave all higher primates the same broken gene for no apparent reason.

So genetically, we humans have no choice but either to add some vitamin C to our diets or to suffer from scurvy. That changes the story quite a bit. A story about choice becomes a fatalistic tale of hard-wired genetic inevitability. That’s a rather substantial and dramatic change — almost a complete reversal of the meaning of the story as originally told.

But that’s what happens when we take one kind of story and treat it as another kind of story. Any attempt to read this story from Genesis as history — as the tale of a historical man named “Mankind” — inevitably changes the story and inevitably entangles it in some such notion of fate or fatalism. If we insist on twisting this origin story into a pseudoscientific or pseudohistorical tale of our actual genetic ancestors, then we’re forced to regard Adam and Eve as having the same genes — the same fallen, imperfect genes — as we possess as their children. That’s not what the story seems originally to have intended, but once we turn from reading it in the way it was originally written we shouldn’t be surprised that its meaning changes. To treat any story as another kind of story is always to change its meaning.

Was the forbidden fruit a citron? Or an apple or a fig? The story doesn’t say. It’s not that kind of story.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* See also Alisa Harris’ Raised Right, Jonathan Dudley’s Broken Words, Christine Rosen’s My Fundamentalist Education, Jason Boyett’s O Me of Little Faith, Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, etc. The pattern I’ve noticed thus far in those I have read is that most of the authors had to question or abandon the “package deal” politics that came with their faith in order to reclaim and rediscover that faith. The one exception is the author who retained the conservative politics of fundamentalism, but lost the faith. Interesting, that.

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  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I’ve been keeping out of the Prodigal Son discussion because I really do get the perspective of the people who hate the parable and I’ve seen here before how this discusson upsets people. But it seems to be carrying on so I’ll put my belated oar in.

    I’m a Christian and I don’t believe that God is an abusive arsehole. I believe, as arc explained, that this parable illustrates the love and mercy of God. But in my own heart I share the resentment of the older son. It resonates very closely with my life experience.

    When I reflect on the perspective of the older son it brings up feelings of frustration and injury and offense at the injustice. That’s not small stuff. But once, while reading this parable, I reflected on the perspective of the father who saw the son he thought dead come back to life. Just a few minutes of imagining that the person I love the most, who is dead, came back to me and that was the end of the day for me. I could bear so many slights, so much injustice against myself, if I could have back the one I lost.

    The other thing I think of is what the older son’s resentful attitude, although completely understandable, would sound like to me if I were in the position of the father. Did the son stay and work hard because it was the right and good thing to do; because he loves his father and wants to be with him? Or did he stay because he assumed there would be consequences if he didn’t – and now he regrets that he, too, didn’t break his father’s heart and get away with it?

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    If it turns out that being good is just taken for granted and being bad gets you a big celebration, then why be good?

    Because you love your father/other people and don’t want to hurt them? We teach children be good to gain rewards and avoid negative consequences, but we also want them to mature to a higher stage of development where actions are motivated by their intrinsic value. I do, anyway.

  • Anonymous

    There’s one more thing I wanted to say abour parables – one purpose of using indirect speech is that the listener has to work it out for themselves to understand them.  In this way it is hoped that they will achieve a deeper understanding than if they’re just told the message directly (this is another way in which they’re like word problems in mathematics)

    So whether or not it improves the story by having the father explain what’s going on to the elder son, it would klnd of defeat the purpose of telling the parable by having it contain its own direct explanation.

  • Kukulkan

    chris the cynic wrote:

    Please don’t lie to me about what I said.  It’s rude.

    I agree, lying is rude.

    It’s also rude to accuse people of things they didn’t do. As far as I’m aware I haven’t lied to you or about you.

    Everything I’ve attributed to you is a direct quote; a straightforward copy/paste. As such it should be completely accurate. If you think anything attributed to you is not what you actually wrote, please quote the offending passage and point out how it differs from what you did write. Once you have done so, I will apologise for the error and retract it.

    Otherwise I’m going to kindly ask you to take your personal attack and fuck off.


    Second, if the elder son had gone and joined the party he would have gotten to partake in a feast there and then.  He would have gotten to dance there and then.  He would have gotten to listen to music there and then.  Not an empty promise of it coming about later, actual results in real time.

    So now you’ve decided to revise your complaint from he wasn’t invited to he wasn’t allowed to attend. This is known as moving the goal posts.

    The point of the parable is that you’re supposed to be happy that they got bailed out. Whether or not you got invited to the party is irrelevant. In fact it’s seen as churlish to complain that you didn’t. That apparently is how the Kingdom of Heaven works. That’s why I think the parable is problematic. You’re the one defending it, so don’t attack me for pointing out that it has problems. Address the problems or explain why they aren’t problems.

    The older son’s complaint wasn’t that he wasn’t invited, it was that he didn’t even get a goat. Well, guess what? At the end of the parable he still doesn’t have even a goat.

    The parallel works. You just don’t like it.

    It is very difficult to have a conversation with someone who is not only acting in bad faith, but also doing it blatantly.

    I’ve said that I think the parable is problematic. As far as I can see, I’m the only one who responded to arcseconds’ request to re-write the parable so as to avoid the difficulties and, in the process, I identified what I see as the problems and suggested ways to fix them. To the best of my knowledge you haven’t responded to arcseconds’ request, so I have to assume you think the parable is fine as is.

    Well, the problems I highlight by making a parallel with the bailout are the same ones I identified. The parallel with the bailout is just another way of pointing them out. Attacking me for making that parallel doesn’t make the problems go away.

    If you don’t like the bailout then as far as I can tell you know exactly how the older son felt. If the older son was just acting like a jerk and being mean to the father, well then…

    If we take the parable seriously as presented, then we should be happy for the banks that they got bailed out. If we’re not happy for the banks — if, indeed, we find that notion that we should be seriously wrong and distasteful — then we need to admit the parable as presented has some problems. Or admit that we aren’t up to the standards represented by the parable — and, if that’s the case, I admit that I’m not.

    Of course, we can avoid considering those problems by just attacking the messenger and declaring the whole subject off limits by saying it offends you — and clearly, anything that offends you must, by definition, be wrong.

    What I said at the beginning of the post has very high stakes for me.

    As it does for me. So either back up your accusation or withdraw it.

    I’m sorry you don’t like me pointing out problems with a parable, but making personal attacks isn’t going to make those problems go away.

  • Kukulkan

    b>arcseconds wrote:

    You should demand a reconsideration of your grade and the head of your former teacher on a plate or something :]

    I just got sent out of the class for the remainder of the lesson. As far as I can tell, it didn’t affect my grade — well, except that it irked the teacher enough that he probably marked me harder than he might have. Fortunately, I was up to standard.

    Just another example of me standing up for something when it probably would have been more politic to just smile, nod and let it go. Sometimes I think that’s the sin of pride at work; other times I think it’s just a commitment to accuracy and honesty. Probably a bit of both.

    I only remember bits and pieces of Latin now though. Lack of practice, I suspect.

  • hf

    I want to go back to the start of the first flame-war, if anyone cares, because I think you’re all mostly wrong.

    lofgren wrote: Of course if Fred can reinterpret the story of Adam and Eve as purely
    metaphorical despite several millennia of Christians, Jews, and Muslims
    treating it as literal history, I guess you can reinterpret Cain and
    Abel as not about making an appropriate sacrifice to god.

    I started to say here that Augustine famously objected to Young-Earth Creationism. Google tells me that in fact he did not — he made a very general statement about not denying the evidence of your own eyes. (People quote this as an argument against YEC because the evidence today demolishes that view.) But even the YEC commentary that I found admits that Augustine interpreted part of Genesis metaphorically at one point in his life. (Likely he did so more strongly than that source wants to acknowledge.)

    Note, however, this also means he made a clear distinction between literal and figurative history. Evidently he makes this explicit in at least one later work:

    “The narration in this book (Genesis) is indeed not a type of
    figurative speech, as in the Song of Songs, but is completely of events
    as in the book of Kings and other literature of this kind.”

    On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis
    De Genesi Ad Litteram, Bk 8 chap. 1, sec 2

    Augustine also objected to the claim that the other side of the Earth (the “Antipodes”) had people living on it, because

    Scripture, which confirms the truth of its historical statements by the accomplishment of its prophecies, teaches not falsehood; and it is too absurd to say that some men might have set sail from this side and, traversing the immense expanse of ocean, have propagated there a race of human beings descended from that one first man.” (City of God XVI.9. via the online Catholic Encyclopedia)

    His objection relates to the story of Adam, “the first man”, a story that he treats here as literal history. (And he gets the relevant part almost right IIRC, though it seems the land-bridge option never occurred to him. Take warning, all ye who would rule out possibilities without close inspection!)

    Now as to the story of Cain and Abel, that one seems chiefly intended to say that herders are better people than farmers. Questions about the sacrifice seem less important. God does prefer the meat, but the story is old enough that he might not have a reason for wanting meat at this particular meal. In fact, he might not have fully-formed preferences yet if we go with the young boy-god theory. Any later preferences on his part could result, in-story, from bad memories of Cain.

    (On the Parable of the Prodigal Son, I guess I’d go with hapax.)