Adam, Eve, and the Apple: How Stories Evolve

Jack Budington
May 25, 2022

Contrary to popular belief, Eve never handed Adam an “apple” in the Garden of Eden. This might be surprising to those of you who’ve never read The Book of Genesis, but the word apple is never mentioned in the text.

Stories are not static constructions. They are a device for communicating ideas that adapt both to the intent of the storyteller and to the environment in which they are being told.

So why does every Renaissance masterpiece depict an apple being picked from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?

Stories are not static constructions. They are a device for communicating ideas that adapt both to the intent of the storyteller and to the environment in which they are being told. The plot, themes, and characters of timeless stories evolve over time.

Alicia Silverstone’s “Clueless” character was based on Jane Austen’s “Emma,” and “West Side Story” was a recreation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Allowing these stories and characters to grow into modern interpretations kept them alive. This is also true in historical works interpreted as literal accounts of our history—in books like the Bible. In that case, evolution of the Garden of Eden story occurred in the late 4th century.

The Bible was originally written in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. This met the needs of the small liturgical Christian community concentrated in the Eastern Mediterranean. The need for a translation became apparent, however, as Christianity moved westward to Latin-speaking areas.

When Jerome began work on the translation of Genesis, he came across many words, ideas, and phrases that required creative interpretation. Reading through the origin story, he came to the word peri, or fruit, that Eve gave to Adam. Here, he made a decision that would forever define the fruit Eve picked from the tree.

He decided on the word malus.

Malus is a Latin homonym. It defines a “fleshy fruit” while also being the word for evil. This metaphorical coincidence was too great for Jerome to ignore. While meaning is often lost in translation, it can sometimes be gained.

The identity of the fruit was unimportant both to Jerome and to the original author of Genesis. What was important in Jerome’s mind was that the fruit represented the origin of sin. Malus allowed Jerome to more directly convey this to his audience even if it added an unwarranted degree of specificity to the fruit.

The apple story demonstrates the complexity of the translation process; it’s a far more complicated act than merely transcribing one word to another (imagine a world where Google Translate works flawlessly). Jerome had to balance preserving the literal meaning of the text with conveying what he saw as the intent of the story. Like the ancient Greek bards before him, that often meant embracing wordplay and adapting the story to his contemporary environment.

Over time, the meaning of malus narrowed even further, from only referring to fleshy fruit (pears and apples but not grapes or berries) to specifically referring to apples. Thus dozens of generations of painters and priests came to associate the fruit in the garden with the apple. And for his work Jerome attained sainthood in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, and Anglican churches.

Saint Jerome’s story is a great reminder that our narratives are never finished. A database of Mythos content is full of kinetic energy. Institutions grow, students become alumni, research leads to new products and ideas. Don’t forget to keep your stories alive and current. They have value long beyond a single campaign.

Saint Jerome Writing, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1607, at St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta
About the Author

Ever since Jack was a kid he has been absorbed in learning everything he can about the world. On family road trips he would constantly pester his parents with questions:

“How far away is it to the moon? How fast is Roger Clemens fastball? What is the oldest town in Connecticut?”

Luckily, for everyone involved, smart phones were invented.

However, Jack’s desire to understand the world never ceased.  As he grew older he became especially interested in history. To Jack history is a vast web of billions of stories with endless complexity. His time at Kenyon College solidified what he loves about studying history—finding patterns, omissions, and meaning in this vast web of stories.

Now as a writer for Mythos, Jack finds and share stories about what it means to create communities of belief and bind people together through values and ideas. Each week Jack hopes to learn something new and hopes you do too.

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