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The Book of all Books by Roberto Calasso

25 March 2022

Anthony Phillips reads a ‘face-value’ account of biblical literature

THIS posthumous publication by the Italian publisher/writer Roberto Calasso is his final book in a series of ten concerning the gods. In it, he roams through much of the Hebrew Scriptures, taking the text at face value. He is particularly concerned with the concept of election (“where some are chosen others must be lost”). Throughout, he has an eye on the New Testament. Large sections of text are quoted verbatim, the sources being listed in an appendix.

Calasso begins with Saul’s encounter with Samuel, a case of “chance and destiny” fusing in one person. There follows the tension of the love-hate relationship between Saul and David, both elect — “those who make stories happen, move history on”. Of Solomon’s reign, much is made of the visit of the Queen of Sheba, the Song of Songs — “a splinter driven into some chemically alien geological strata” — Ecclesiastes, and foreign influences.

Calasso follows the monarchies of the divided kingdoms and their endless wars. He compares and contrasts the work of the prophets and the Verdic seers, and concludes with Josiah’s reading the Book of the Covenant. At this point, he turns back to the patriarchs.

The illogicality of Yahweh’s call to the childless Abraham to be “the father of a great nation” is well brought out, as is the necessity of going away: “without separation there can be no Jews.” In an imaginative aside, Calasso recognises the relationship between Abraham and Job, noting that as regards “the mystery surrounding the fortunes of the wicked and the sufferings of the righteous . . . men must live inside that mystery without expecting to be told what was behind it.”

In the Moses narrative, Calasso identifies three important themes: primogeniture, on which the battle between Moses and Pharaoh hinged; blood, central to Israel’s sacral life; and the part played by images. He manages to integrate Zipporah’s circumcision of her son with the surrounding narrative in a novel way.

Given his methodology, the author’s discussion of the Prologue of Genesis is the least satisfactory. He draws on ancient Near Eastern material, but notes the Bible’s “unique claim that the founding act behind the history of the world was a sin”.

The book ends with a discussion of Ezekiel’s prophecies of judgement and restoration, the destruction of the second temple and the consequent “modernisation” of Judaism through the loss of sacrifice, and a note on Messiah.

Calasso has a genius for dramatising the narratives which makes them come alive. They are, after all, some of the most exciting literature ever written; nor is he afraid to challenge scholarly interpreters with sliding over difficult material. Not least, his references to thinkers such as Goethe, Freud, Darwin, Weil, and many others illuminate his discussion.

Despite his awareness of the critical approach to the Old Testament, Calasso’s reliance on taking the text, with all its inconsistencies, at face value inevitably makes difficulties for him. No matter how important “the Final Editor of the Bible is, the most ignored and most decisive of all its authors”, there is no alternative to patient and critical study of the text — now an almost old-fashioned concept — to reveal how it reached its present form and how it has constantly been re-presented to serve new generations with new problems and new understanding of the nature of their God. As so often in life, it is in the end a matter of both/and, not either/or.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.


The Book of all Books
Roberto Calasso
Allen Lane £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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