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What Fruit Grew on the Tree of Knowledge?

Some religious debates end up in slaughter, others create schisms, and there are some which merely entertain. The debate over what fruit grew on the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden hasn’t resulted in any serious factionalism or bloodshed, and that’s the one we’re going to illustrate here. Now, as you surely recall, 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.”

Nowhere in the story of Adam and Eve does it say what fruit grew on the tee of knowledge. Some Talmudic scholars have said the fruit 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 in Christian tradition 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 depiction 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.

Adam and Eve and serpent by Michelangelo

Adam and Eve and serpent by Michelangelo

Above is the left side of Michelangelo’s painting. 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. 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, of the tree of knowledge.  Clearly those are apples. The snake is not only female, but a rather pretty and engaging woman.

Tree of Knowledge by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Tree of Knowledge by Cranach the Elder

It’s safe to say that the tradition of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden apple arises when the Bible is translated into Latin. In Latin the word malum means apple and it also means evil. This kind of wordplay, which can become elaborate,  occurs among scholars – yes, even among Biblical scholars. 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.

Apple Computer logo

Apple Computer logo

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 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.

More Notes

Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.