apples on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil

One of the more well-known Bible translation stories is the Latin translation in the Vulgate (4th century by St. Jerome of Stridon) that supposedly creates a pun with the translation of “evil” in the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (translated in the Vulgate as lignumque scientiae boni et mali) and the fruit that is mentioned in Genesis 3:3, 3:6 and 3:12. According to the story, the Hebrew word that is translated as “fruit” in English was translated as mālum (“apple”), thus creating a pun with the Latin word malum which is used in the form mali in the translation for the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (see above). This in turn, according to the story, created the connection between the “forbidden fruit” and the apple in art history (see below for a 16th century depiction by Lucas Cranach the Elder), anatomical terminology (“Adam’s apple” and similar expressions in many European languages for the laryngeal prominence) and the public imagination.

Alas, this turns out to be an urban myth. The Vulgate (as well as the older Vetus Latina) both use frūctus (“fruit”) in Genesis 3 for peri (פְרִי), the Hebrew word for fruit. While it’s possible that the use of malum in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was implicitly understood as pointing to an apple, it’s not likely since there is a market difference in pronunciation: /ˈmaː.lum/ (“apple”) vs. /ˈma.lum/ (“evil”). Maybe it’s more likely that the apple was the likely choice in the European imagination because of its prominence as were grapes, figs, pomegranates, or etrogs in the Jewish imagination.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

With contributions by Seppo Sipilä, Reinier de Blois, and Harry Harm.

In Low German “fruit” is translated as Appeln or “apples” in Genesis 3:3 and 3:6 (translation by Johannes Jessen, publ. 1937, republ. 2006).

See also fruit.