By: alexanderlewin

Mar 20 2016

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Category: Literature, Mythology, The Holy Bible

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I’m running the risk of breaking the unwritten rule of blogging with this post, that to test the patience of one’s readership is the height of rudeness, but I couldn’t resist posting this passage from Ann Wroe’s book Pilate.  She wears her scholarship so lightly, combining the fruits of her research in finely-wrought prose that is a delight to read. I found a reference to this book in another entertaining work of scholarship, Reza Aslan’s Zealot:  I’m so glad to have followed it up and acquired a copy. ‘Tis a rare gem!

apples (2)

It began in a garden.  In the centre of that garden, planted by God in Eden, grew the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Fruit hung from its branches.  The Book of Genesis does not say what sort of fruits these were: the Arabs think they were figs, some say they were pomegranates or green plantains; but at least since the time of the apocryphal gospels men have imagined they were apples.
The apple, ‘malum’, also meant ‘the bad thing’. It could not be evil in itself, it was the concentration of God’s sweetness. But men could not cope with it. It symbolised not only dangerous knowledge, but contention and power. Men longed for it almost without knowing why. Hercules travelled the world for the golden apples of the Hesperides, which also grew in a tree guarded by a coiling serpent; he tricked Atlas into fetching them, but Atlas refused to hand them over. Eris, also called Discordia, tossed a golden apple among the gods to spoil their celebrations. Apples were irresistible, but carried risks. Men or women who longed for apples were about to get into trouble.
Adam and Eve in the garden desired the apple, ate, and fell. What is less well known is that Pilate followed them. The Golden Legend relates how one day he stood at the window of his palace, gazing at a nearby orchard. The trees were heavy with red apples, and Pilate was seized with such a fierce desire for the fruit that he almost fainted. He called his servant to him and said, ‘I want that fruit so much that if I don’t get some, I shall die.’
The scene was supposedly set in Judea, but it sounds like northern Europe. It is a version of the story of Rapunzel, where the pregnant wife longs for the wild garlic that grows in the witch’s garden. Her husband, believing her when she insists that she will die without it, scales the wall. But the witch exacts a penalty for the stolen plant: she demands the child that is to be born. A bargain of the same sort was about to be made with Pilate, that loss and death would come of his desire.
He did not exactly order the apples to be stolen, but they were stolen anyway. That is the way with apples. They invite the stealing, then the excuses. (‘The woman gave it to me, and I ate.’ ‘The serpent beguiled me, and I ate.’) Typically the guardian of the apples – the owner, the higher authority, the conscience – is absent or asleep. The apples ask to be stolen, inveigle themselves into outstretched hands. Thoreau, the most moral of men, wrote in his diary of sampling apples in the woods of Massachusetts; they belonged to someone, but their very splendour made it more of a sin to leave them than to take them. ‘I pluck them,’ he wrote,

‘fruit of old trees that have been dying ever since I was a boy and are not yet dead…Frequented only by the woodpecker, deserted now by the farmer, who has not faith enough to look under the boughs. Food for walkers. Sometimes apples red inside, perfused with a beautiful blush, too beautiful to eat, – apple of the evening sky, of the Hesperides…Let the frost come to freeze them first solid as stones, and then the sun…thaw them, and they will seem to have borrowed a flavour from heaven through the medium of the air in which they hang.’

Stolen apples, as the proverb says, are always sweetest. They impart knowledge, love, authority, charisma, to those who are not ready to have them yet. The immature king (or the immature governor) holds the orb, the ‘golden apple’ of power; the teenager fondles the orbs of his girl’s breasts. If apples are so bewitching, perhaps God has put them there deliberately to provoke the crime: to unleash the longing that will lead to the fall.
So Pilate, in his palace, longed for the apples beyond the wall. His servant went over to fetch them, scrambling, jumping, filling his pockets. On the way he encountered the owner of the orchard, a man he did not recognise, and killed him with a stone. Then he delivered the apples to Pilate, shining, blood-red, and watched as he cut the white flesh to the core. As Pilate ate, the servant told him what the price of the apples had been.
Adam, too, had eaten the apple boldly for a while. But it turned to ashes. He realised that he was naked; and then, ‘sciens bonum et malum’, knowing good and the apple, he was driven from the garden. The cost of that apple, too, was blood. According to St. Augustine, ‘Eve borrowed sin from the devil and wrote a bill and provided a surety, and the interest on the debt was heaped upon posterity…She wrote the bill when she reached out her hand to the forbidden apple.’ And in the end, adds the Golden Legend, ‘Christ took this bill and nailed it to the cross.’
That cross itself, some said, sprang from the forbidden apple tree. Centuries before, Japeth, the son of Noah, had taken into the Ark a cutting from the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden, and planted it in the garden where Christ was arrested. By the time Pilate needed it, it was high enough to hang a man.
The Song of Songs offered a different speculation. There Christ was both the apple and the tree: the outstretched arms and the drops of blood.

‘As the apple tree among the trees of the wood,
So is my beloved among the sons.
I sat down under his shadow with great delight,
And his fruit was sweet to my taste.’

It was sweet to Pilate also. The governor desired the apple tree and its sweet hanging burden, without knowing why, because of the job he was destined to do. Christ was the tree, Christ the apple; Christ was the temptation, and the satisfaction. And if Pilate did not pluck him, peel him, crush him till the juice flowed, he would never unleash for fallen men the possibility of salvation.

Ann Wroe, from Pilate, The Biography
of an Invented Man
Random House 1999


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