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Adam, Eve, and the Apple: The Power of a Single Word

Written By Jack Budington

May 18, 2022

Contrary to popular belief, Eve never handed Adam an “apple” in the Garden of Eden. This might be surprising to those of you who’ve never read The Book of Genesis, but the word apple is never mentioned in the text. So why does every Renaissance masterpiece depict an apple being picked from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?

Eve gives Adam an apple in the Garden of Eden
The Fall of Man (1616) by Dutch painter Hendrick Goltzius

Stories are not static constructions. They are a device for communicating ideas that adapt both to the intent of the storyteller and to the environment in which they are being told. The plot, themes, and characters of timeless stories evolve over time. 

Alicia Silverstone’s “Clueless” character was based on Jane Austen’s “Emma,” and “West Side Story” was a recreation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Allowing these stories and characters to grow into modern interpretations kept them alive. This is also true in historical works interpreted as literal accounts of our history—in books like the Bible. In that case, evolution of the Garden of Eden story occurred in the late 4th century.

The Bible was originally written in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. This met the needs of the small liturgical Christian community concentrated in the Eastern Mediterranean. The need for a translation became apparent, however, as Christianity moved westward to Latin-speaking areas.

Towards the end of the 4th century, Damasus 1, The Bishop of Rome, sponsored the first modern translation of the Old Testament. He chose Jerome, a Balkan Illyrian and Christian convert, to create the Latin version of the sacred book. His translation, known as the Vulgate, remains the official Bible of the Catholic Church today.

When Jerome began work on the translation of Genesis, he came across many words, ideas, and phrases that required creative interpretation. Reading through the origin story, he came to the word peri, or fruit, that Eve gave to Adam. Here, he made a decision that would forever define the fruit Eve picked from the tree. He decided on the word malus.

Malus is a Latin homonym. It defines a “fleshy fruit” while also being the word for evil. This metaphorical coincidence was too great for Jerome to ignore. While meaning is often lost in translation, it can sometimes be gained. The identity of the fruit was unimportant both to Jerome and to the original author of Genesis. What was important in Jerome’s mind was that the fruit represented the origin of sin. Malus allowed Jerome to more directly convey this to his audience even if it added an unwarranted degree of specificity to the fruit. 

The story of Eve and the apple demonstrates the complexity of the translation process; it’s a far more complicated act than merely transcribing one word to another (imagine a world where Google Translate works flawlessly). Jerome had to balance preserving the literal meaning of the text with conveying what he saw as the intent of the story. Like the ancient Greek bards before him, that often meant embracing wordplay and adapting the story to his contemporary environment.

Over time, the meaning of malus narrowed even further, from only referring to fleshy fruit (pears and apples but not grapes or berries) to specifically referring to apples. Thus dozens of generations of painters and priests came to associate the fruit in the garden with the apple. And for his work, Jerome attained sainthood in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, and Anglican churches.

Our business was founded on the delivery of language, so we naturally have a passion for words and the stories that explain their origin and evolution. Let us know if you have an interesting story about a term or turn of phrase and we’ll add it to our blog ideas list.