While the Talmud suggests a number of possible identities for the forbidden fruit of Genesis—including a fig, a date, a grape, and a kernel of wheat—not one of them is the apple. Nonetheless, most Western readers of the Bible imagine it to be just that. Nina Martyris describes the transformation of the generic “fruit” of the original Hebrew text:
In order to explain, we have to go all the way back to the 4th century CE, when Pope Damasus ordered his leading scholar of scripture, Jerome, to translate the Hebrew Bible into Latin. Jerome’s pathbreaking, fifteen-year project, which resulted in the canonical Vulgate, used the Latin spoken by the common man. As it turned out, the Latin words for evil and apple are the same: malum. . . .
When Jerome was translating the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” the word malum snaked in. A brilliant but controversial theologian, Jerome was known for his hot temper, but he obviously also had a rather cool sense of humor. “Jerome had several options,” says Robert Appelbaum, a professor of English literature at Sweden’s Uppsala University. “But he . . . came up with a very good pun. [But] to complicate things even more, the word malum in Jerome’s time, and for a long time after, could refer to any fleshy seed-bearing fruit. A pear was a kind of malum. So was the fig, the peach, and so forth.”
Which explains why Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco features a serpent coiled around a fig tree. But the apple began to dominate Fall artworks in Europe after the German artist Albrecht Dürer’s famous 1504 engraving depicted the first couple counterpoised beside an apple tree.
It was John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) that cemented the image for English-speaking readers:
Appelbaum says that Milton’s use of the term “apple” was ambiguous. “Even in Milton’s time the word had two meanings: either what was our common apple, or, again, any fleshy seed-bearing fruit. Milton probably had in mind an ambiguously named object with a variety of connotations as well as denotations, most but not all of them associating the idea of the apple with a kind of innocence, though also with a kind of intoxication, since hard apple cider was a common English drink.”