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Contrary to popular belief no mention of the fruit being an apple can be found in the Book of Genesis.

Jewish commentaries recorded in the Midrash Rabbah speculate that the tree might have been a species of wheat, or corn, or that the fruit might have been grapes or figs.

And yet, the idea that it was an apple is widely accepted.

Was it due to Classical influences (The golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides)?
Is it a legacy from the Latin 'malum' (apple/evil)?
Or is there another reason?

Are there any other theories that have been put forward as to what the fruit might have been?

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'Apple' used to just mean fruit (which is where the name of 'pineapples' comes from... pinecone shaped fruit), so maybe the idea came from the time when the word wasn't specific? – curiousdannii Mar 25 '14 at 21:48
I don't have time to do this myself now, but someone should check when the word first meant the specific fruit and compare that time to English Bible translations. – curiousdannii Mar 25 '14 at 22:00
I remember a sermon from Fulton Sheen where he mentioned that the reason was the similarity between the Latin words as you mentioned. – LoveTheFaith Mar 25 '14 at 22:36
I remember reading somewhere that golden apples of Hesperides were actually oranges, so maybe this story also suffers from the ambiguity of the English word apple. – david brainerd Mar 26 '14 at 2:27

3 Answers 3

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word apple has, until recently, always meant simply "fruit" in English. This was certainly the case at the time of the earliest English Bible translations in the 1600s.

In Middle English and as late as 17c., it was a generic term for all fruit other than berries but including nuts (e.g. Old English fingeræppla "dates," literally "finger-apples;" Middle English appel of paradis "banana," c.1400). Hence its grafting onto the unnamed "fruit of the forbidden tree" in Genesis.

(emphasis added)

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The notion of the forbidden fruit being an apple is not something exclusive of english christianity (here in Spain is also an usual misconception), as long as I've heard is something habitual in Western European culture as a whole.

The main explication that I found about this is related to something that the OP already talked about: the latin words malum/mālum which mean evil and apple and have a very similar pronunciation. The reason was the following:

Saint Jerome was one of the most relevants scholars of his time, being depicted in a huge number of paintings. He is also the autor of a translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew that started in 390 and was finished by 405. This translation into Latin is what is know as a vulgate, an edition of the Bible aimed to the people, not just for the scholars.

St. Jerome translated the original using the word malum (additional reference) which has given rise to the notion of the fruit being a apple.

This misconception was perpetuated in the ideas of European people mainly due to the work of the numerous painters who decided to paint this scene. For instance here you can take a look at the painting called The Fall of Men by Jan Brueghel and P.P. Rubens:

The Fall of Men - Jan Brueghel and P.P. Rubens

And also the very famous Adam and Eve by Albretch Dürer (link).

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"St. Jerome was not completely proficient in Hebrew, and therefore, he translated malum as apple instead of evil." That's not actually what the reference you quote says. It says "Malum" can mean both "apple" and 'evil" in Latin – DJClayworth Sep 8 at 17:22
I don't know what that means, but whatever it means, what you wrote in the answer is wrong. – DJClayworth Sep 8 at 17:24
The similarity of malum in Latin would be a reason an English translation might get it wrong, not a reason why someone translating from Hebrew to Latin might get it wrong. Jerome's proficiency in Hebrew wouldn't be a cause of confusion for the word malum. – ThaddeusB Sep 8 at 17:39
@ThaddeusB I didn't realize earlier that what I wrote made no sense. I have edited the question and deleted my previous comments. Thank you both for pointing it out to me. – Adolfo Sep 8 at 17:57
Thanks, makes sense now -> +1 – ThaddeusB Sep 8 at 18:08

I believe, people used apple to symbolize the fruit because of its uniqueness, and the mentality that the condition "eat" synonymous to taking a "bite". Also the fruit was attractive as the bible mentioned that the woman saw that it was "pleasant" to the eyes... "And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat" Genesis 3:6. My conclusion is that the apple is pleasant in looks and consumed by taking consecutive bites, unlike an orange, although other fruits like bananas can be bitten too, but in terms of appearance, the apple could be really tempting. Moreso, the serpent was subtle and tricky, so it would only have used a deceptive fruit like itself.

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What evidence do you have for your speculations? – curiousdannii Oct 28 '14 at 10:40
@curiousdannii Genesis 3:6, which spoke about the pleasantry of the fruit – waledemz Oct 28 '14 at 11:56
This answer is all speculation. The question speculates too, but wants academic input or verification with reliable sources. – Mr. Bultitude Oct 28 '14 at 14:48

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