Old Testament, New Telling: On Roberto Calasso’s “The Book of All Books”

April 10, 2022   •   By Dan Turello

The Book of All Books

Roberto Calasso

MY EVANGELICAL MOTHER should be pleased. I’ve been reading scripture with a passion and curiosity I have not felt in years. I’ve been digging through my closets — in there, I found my father’s Italian Bible, the one curated by Giovanni Luzzi of the Waldensian Theological Faculty in Rome. Remarkably, I’ve misplaced the New International Version Bible, that mainstay of evangelical congregations that I acquired at some point during my teenage years, as the child of an American missionary and an Italian preacher who were living in Italy. So I ordered a new one, the NIV Student Bible (Zondervan) with notes by Philip Yancey and Tim Stafford. Yancey, an editor-at-large for Christianity Today, wrote for teenage audiences in a way that felt sincere. My plan is to use the NIV Bible as a counterpoint — a way to compare Roberto Calasso’s retelling with the more staid evangelical version I grew up with.

Calasso died at the age of 80 on July 28, 2021. Born to a family of Italian intellectuals in 1941, he had begun writing at an early age, around 12 or 13. Obituaries, including a remembrance by Jonathan Galassi, recall the brilliance, knowledge of ancient languages, broad-ranging intellectual curiosity, and dual vocation as a writer and book publisher. Calasso spent decades as editorial director and later president of Adelphi, where his list included authors as diverse as Nietzche, Milan Kundera, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Bruce Chatwin.

There are 1,741 footnotes to The Book of All Books. While one may get the impression that it is narrated lightheartedly, even flippantly, and there are occasions where he gets some details wrong, there is nothing flippant about the erudition and cross-referencing that went into the text. The vast majority of notes refer to scripture, but interwoven are references to its many readers, among them, Goethe (from whom Calasso borrowed the title of his book), Freud, Simone Weil, and Walter Benjamin. Umberto Cassuto, a rabbi and historian from the University of Florence, makes numerous appearances. The focus is on the Old Testament: the Torah and prophets.

As I dig into Calasso’s book, in Tim Parks’s translation, I keep being surprised, laughing out loud, texting my evangelical friends. I thought I knew the Bible, but clearly I did not. For centuries, the Catholic Church did not encourage the individual reading of scripture. It was a wise move, for who could possibly make sense of the sweeping histories, cryptic sacrificial theologies, and obscure Old Testament rituals. Protestant tradition broke away from all this. Sola Scriptura, many evangelicals claim today, pointing to Martin Luther, even though he probably never said this. Be that as it may, even evangelicals cannot do away with commentary and interpretation, hence the heavily annotated editions.

Along with countless evangelicals around the world, as a kid, I was encouraged to read Scripture every day. By the time I was nine or 10, I had learned about the Old Testament’s greatest hits: Noah’s Ark, the story of Moses in the basket, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, and Daniel’s three friends in the fiery furnace. The way those stories were told, though, was fantastically condensed — the narrative direction had one primary intent: to demonstrate God’s providence in history, and the linear path toward Christ’s sacrifice. Or, like Daniel in the Lions’ Den, the episodes were told as stand-alones, to demonstrate a miraculous intervention.

Calasso’s architecture is well planned, if somewhat cryptic. Twelve chapters are surely no coincidence. Chapters one and 12 are concise, metaphysical bookends of sorts: chapter one is a six-paragraph mythical overture invoking Cabbalist understandings of scripture, and chapter 12, about the idea of a messiah, is only minimally longer. The chronology is not always linear. Chapters two through five track the story of kingship in the Old Testament from Saul to David to Solomon. Chapter five, “Wicked Heights,” tells the story of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Chapter six, “Those Who Went Away,” goes back in time to reconstruct the story of Abraham and his early descendants, exploring the creation of a covenant and the birth of a nation. Chapters seven and eight delve into the story of Moses, weaving in interpretations from Kafka and Freud. Chapter nine, “The First Generations,” reverts to prehistory, the mythical space occupied by Adam and Eve and their immediate descendants. Throughout the narrative, Calasso’s focus is on the bizarre, the cryptic, and, perhaps most important, the un-stated. He writes:

The Bible has no rivals when it comes to the art of omission, of not saying what everyone would like to know. Why didn’t Cain’s offering please Yahweh? What happened in the first seventy-five years of Abraham’s life, before Yahweh said to him, “Go away!”? Why did Samuel choose Saul, whom he had never met nor heard of, as first king of Israel?

That last question seems particularly significant. The birth of political order has been a matter of societal importance. The Greeks took such questions seriously: the right ordering of the soul and of society in Plato’s Republic, and the cataloging of constitutions in Aristotle’s Politics. But in the New Testament, Paul would point dismissively to Hellenic erudition. “Foolishness to the Greeks” he would claim (1 Corinthians 1:23) about the Gospel of the crucified Christ. Throughout the narrative, Calasso points out the many ways Old Testament political thought — that strange mixture of sacrificial theology, emphasis on divine calling, and ambivalence over the institution of kingship — develops far more questions than it answers.

The thread, the evangelicals might say, is on the fragility of human institutions and the importance of the divine call and the practice of humility and faith. But even within those artificial guardrails, the text sure does get confusing. Consider the story of King David conducting a census. David, the story goes, decided to count the men in his army and under his purview — a grave sin, because it demonstrated human planning, and a lack of faith in God, the source of all strength. Calasso writes: “To undertake a census was one of the worst crimes you could commit. No one knew why. But the revulsion was general. And who had given David the idea? In the second book of Samuel it is Yahweh himself, in the first book of Chronicles it is Satan.”

I didn’t remember this discrepancy, or it was never pointed out to me. I consult the NIV Bible, which doesn’t disappoint. Yancey and Stafford are heroic, if comical, in their efforts: “In a parallel account,” they note,

1 Chronicles 21:1 says that Satan moved David to take the census. Who was it — Satan or the Lord? One explanation is that both are true. The Lord, as the ultimate power, allowed the census, and as is typical in the Old Testament, he gets full credit here. The Chronicles version is more concerned about being precise: Because the census was clearly evil […], Satan was more directly responsible.

The subtle play of inversion between pride and humility is a guiding theme in the Old Testament. Calasso elaborates its implications. “Yahweh’s choice of Israel implied a passage from direct analogy to inverted analogy.” In other societies, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and even India, there had been a direct correspondence between the ordering of human society with the ordering of the heavenly realms. But, argues Calasso, by choosing Israel, “Yahweh settled on the opposite, an inverted analogy: the smallest would become the greatest, the last would take place of the first.” It’s a brilliant strategy, I would add, employed by wannabe religious leaders everywhere: claim humility — it’s not your greatness, you can say, it’s God’s greatness that shines through me. Subtle, and apparently humble — how better to claim authority than to claim it’s actually God that is doing the choosing and the leading — it’s both impossible to verify and unacceptable to oppose. Verification is out of reach by definition. Nietzche thought Christianity produced weaklings, and that may be one possible outcome of the cult of humility. In my experience, the other likely outcome of this mechanism in particular is much more frequent: it produces scores of bullies who appeal to a divine mandate to get their way.

In a famous essay, Viktor Shklovsky argued that the “technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” He elaborates, observing that after “we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it — hence we cannot say anything significant about it.” Shklovsky is talking about visual art as well as literature, and his next example of “defamiliarization” is drawn from Tolstoy, who described a flogging in a way so original that it startled the reader out of slumber and forced a pause, a reckoning, to consider what the practice actually involved.

Calasso’s retelling of the biblical story does exactly this. I still don’t fully understand why his chronology proceeds the way it does, from the establishment of a reluctant monarchy, back to the forefathers, onward to Moses. But maybe this is why Calasso makes the text less familiar, alerting us that it is time to read it in a different way and to invite a different kind of experience.

Instead of following the well-worn path of thinking about Abraham as the father of a nation, we are presented with a traveling herder about whom we know nothing other than that he had a beautiful wife. Calasso points out that among “the many causes of bafflement scholars come up against in the Bible one of the most glaring is the fact that there are three occasions in Genesis when a man tries to pass off his wife as his sister.” Recalling these episodes alongside the accounts of fathers willing to send out their daughters to be raped by mobs casts these men in rather unflattering light. But more importantly, it raises the question of how the books of the Bible were assembled, how and why stories were included or deleted. The “main author of the Bible,” writes Calasso, “could be thought of as the unknown Final Redactor, who thus becomes responsible for all the innumerable occasions of perplexity that the Bible is bound to provoke in anyone.” This seems to be the interpretative crux. The Bible continues to inspire our cultural and religious imaginary. The question is not whether to read it — it is how we read it.

John Barton, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, concludes his pious review of Calasso’s work with a feeble “[m]y hope is that it will encourage people to read the Bible itself, guided by the helpful pointers Calasso provides.” But that misses the point. Calasso’s work isn’t about offering helpful pointers to anything: it is a retelling of stories framed in a way radically different from what we have been accustomed to. Calasso’s book is, among other things, about how artists and creatives have wrestled with its often baffling content. And it is an invitation to reconsider.

If I could have expressed any wishes about the book, it’s that I am curious as to what Calasso might have done with the life of Christ: the birth, the parables, the relationship with the pharisees, the turning of the tables in the temple, the Sermon on the Mount — all of the episodes that form our current societal view of Christ as a bearded revolutionary preaching the Gospel of love. Calasso goes a different direction, one that is consistent with viewing the Old Testament from a primarily Jewish point of view. In his final chapter, “The Messiah,” he moves away from any kind of granular investigation, choosing instead to hint at the big questions on the nature of sacrifice and the transition, in Jewish practice, from the actual sacrifices of livestock, which were carried out up to the devastation of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD, to other forms of worship: study, prayer, recitation. Yet the Rabbinic tradition, he suggests, would continue to engage with the idea of sacrifice, tied up as it was with notions of guilt and atonement.

He quotes, among others, 15th-century Italian Rabbi Obadiah Bartenura: “It is well known that, because of the sacrifices Noah offered, the Holy One, bless him, swore never again to unleash a flood upon the earth. It is a good thing that the world keep the practice of sacrifice.” Calasso sums it up with a pithy gloss: “Only if some beings were killed on an altar could other beings have the guarantee that they would not be killed by their god.” It is a troubling theme, humanity’s fascination with sacrifice and atonement, that Calasso had observed spanning times and cultures, and that he had wrestled with throughout his oeuvre. This is an elegant and understated way to end the book — understandably, writing on the actual life of Christ would have required another volume. All the same, one can wish.


Dan Turello is a writer and cultural historian based in Washington, DC, and the creator of the Alternative DC Portraits Project: www.piemonteseingiro.com/portraits.