Forbidden fruit is a phrase that originates from Genesis concerning Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:16–17. In the narrative, the fruit of good and evil was eaten by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. As a metaphor, the phrase typically refers to any indulgence or pleasure that is considered illegal or immoral.
Potential forbidden fruits of the Garden of Eden include the apple, pomegranate, the fig, the carob, the etrog orcitron, the pear, mushrooms, the quince and, more recently, the datura. The pseudepigraphic Book of Enochdescribes the tree of knowledge: “It was like a species of the Tamarind tree, bearing fruit which resembled grapesextremely fine; and its fragrance extended to a considerable distance. I exclaimed, How beautiful is this tree, and how delightful is its appearance!” (1 Enoch 31:4).
One alternative view is that the forbidden fruit is not a fruit at all, but a metaphorical one, possibly the fruit of the womb, i.e. sex and procreation from the tree of life.
There is nothing in the Bible that expressly mentions or suggests that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Etz ha-Daat tov V’ra) is an apple tree. Even early authorities disagreed on the species of the tree and its fruit. The apocryphal Book of Enoch (32:4) suggests that the tree looked like a species of tamarind that bore fruit which resembled extremely fine grapes.
In the Talmud (Berachot40b), Rabbi Meir said that Man and Woman debased themselves by drinking wine made out of the grape(s) which grew from the tree, “since the thing that most causes wailing to a man is wine” (as it did to Noah, who drank to the point of intoxication). Meanwhile, Rabbi Nehemiah suggested that the fruit may have been figs (cf. Genesis 3:7, where Adam and Eve sew fig leaves to hide their nakedness) while Rabbi Yehuda said that it was a sort of wheat (Hebrew khitah, a pun onkhet, “sin”), “since a child does not know how to call ‘father’ and ‘mother’ until it has had a taste of corn.”
The citron (Hebrew etrog, which resembles the Aramaic m’ragag, “desirable”; cf. Genesis 3:6) and the carob (since its Hebrew name charuv puns oncherev “sword”, and churban “destruction”) have also been suggested. Islamic tradition, meanwhile, commonly represents the fruit as a fig or olive.
Around the 12th century, Christian art in France and Germany started to depict the apple as the forbidden fruit, while Byzantine and Italian artists stuck with the belief that the Fruit of Knowledge was a fig. It was not until the later Renaissance that the “forbidden fruit=apple” belief was universal.
There are varying hypotheses on why the apple was chosen to represent this fruit, but one possible theory is that because the Latin word for evil, “malus“, is homonymous with the word for apple: Adam and Eve contracted malus(evil) by eating a malus (apple).
According to the Quran, Surah Al-A’raf 7:19 describes Adam and his wife in Paradise where they may eat what is provided, except that they may not eat from one particular tree, should they be considered Zalimun. Surah Ibrahim#.14:26 describes the forbidden tree as an evil tree that is forbidden for guidance.
Surah Al-A’raf 7:22 describes the ˈibliːs who misled them with deception, and then it was Adam who initiated eating from the forbidden tree. Then when they tasted of the tree, that which was hidden from them of their shame became manifest to them and they began to cover themselves with the leaves of Paradise. And their Lord called out to them: “Did I not forbid you that tree and tell you; Verily, Shaitân is an open enemy unto you?” (Quran 7:19). The Quran holds both Adam and his wife accountable for eating the forbidden fruit. As punishment, they were both banished from Heaven and sent to the Earth where they were forgiven after repenting.
Many modern scholars think the author(s) of the text had the pomegranate in mind.
Genesis doesn’t mention apples, but Proverbs 25:11 says a timely word is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. More significantly, in the Song of Solomon the apple is an erotic symbol indicating sweetness, desire, and the female breast, which gives you an idea how things are starting to go, metaphorwise.
Early Christian scholars often took the forbidden fruit to be an apple, possibly because of the irresistible pun suggested by the Latin malum, which means both “apple” and “evil.” At least one early Latin translation of the bible uses “apple” instead of “fruit.” A contributing factor no doubt was that apples were a lot more popular in Europe than in the Middle East, where it’s generally too hot for them to thrive.
It wasn’t just Christians who picked up on the apple’s racy side. The most famous apple of Greek myth is the one you cite, the gold apple labeled “To the fairest” that Eris, goddess of discord, throws among the guests at a wedding party, leading to the judgment of Paris (he has to choose whether Hera, Aphrodite, or Athena is the most beautiful) and ultimately to the Trojan War. You get the picture: apples may look good, but they’re trouble. Christian scholars knew the Greek myths and adapted many to their new religion.
Still, the apple wasn’t the unanimous choice for forbidden fruit. Carved depictions of Adam and Eve with apples are found in early Christian catacombs and on sarcophagi. The apple was the favored representation of the forbidden fruit in Christian art in France and Germany beginning around the 12th century. But Byzantine and Italian artists tended to go with the fig.
In fact, you can read Christian iconography as a long, twilight struggle between figs and apples over which is the alpha temptation symbol. The apple has a lot to recommend it: red (blood) or golden (greed), round (fertility) and sweet-tasting (desire). The fig, on the other hand, has a certain phallic look, noted as far back as the ancient Greeks, who, admittedly, thought everything looked phallic. By the Renaissance, almost simultaneously we have Albrecht Dürer depicting Adam and Eve and the serpent with an apple (1504, 1507), and Michelangelo equipping the same cast with figs on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (circa 1510).
Ultimately the apple prevailed. In Areopagitica (1644), Milton explicitly described the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil as an apple, and that was pretty much the ball game. Islamic tradition, however, commonly represents the forbidden fruit as the fig or olive.
A related question: what’s meant by the “knowledge of good and evil”? Take your pick:
Ethical discrimination, knowing right from wrong. One problem with this interpretation: if Adam and Eve had no knowledge of right and wrong before eating the fruit, how would they know disobedience was wrong?
Knowledge of sex. The first thing Adam and Eve do after their snack is realize they’re naked.
Knowledge, period. In this view, “good and evil” is an encompassing bookend phrase, like “A to Z.” Having tasted of the tree, mankind wants to know everything.