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.
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* 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.