This month marks 350 years since John Milton sold his publisher the copyright of Paradise Lost for the sum of five pounds.
His great work dramatizes the oldest story in the Bible, whose principal characters we know only too well: God, Adam, Eve, Satan in the form of a talking snake — and an apple.
Except, of course, that Genesis never names the apple but simply refers to “the fruit.” To quote from the King James Bible:
And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.'”
“Fruit” is also the word Milton employs in the poem’s sonorous opening lines:
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe
But in the course of his over-10,000-line poem, Milton names the fruit twice, explicitly calling it an apple. So how did the apple become the guilty fruit that brought death into this world and all our woe?
The short and unexpected answer is: a Latin pun.
In order to explain, we have to go all the way back to the fourth century A.D., when Pope Damasus ordered his leading scholar of scripture, Jerome, to translate the Hebrew Bible into Latin. Jerome’s path-breaking, 15-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: malus.
In the Hebrew Bible, a generic term, peri, is used for the fruit hanging from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, explains Robert Applebaum, who discusses the biblical provenance of the apple in his book Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup, and Other Gastronomic Interjections.
“Peri could be absolutely any fruit,” he says. “Rabbinic commentators variously characterized it as a fig, a pomegranate, a grape, an apricot, a citron, or even wheat. Some commentators even thought of the forbidden fruit as a kind of wine, intoxicating to drink.”