Roberto Calasso’s Substitutionary Logic of Sacrifice

One might be tempted to think that when the late Roberto Calasso turned his attention to probe the stories of the Old Testament (Il libro di tutti i libri, coming soon in English translation),[1] he would have treated it solely from within the perspective of mythology. His wide-ranging, genre-defying series of which this volume is (sadly) the penultimate part examines the interplay between myth and literature across time and space by examining the foundational stories of ancient cultures.[2] After all, is it not conventional to view Genesis and other stories in sacred Scripture as just that, myths constructed to help a people understand their society and the world in which they lived?

Calasso takes the question directly, as much as one can describe any of his writing with such terms. After 355 pages he considers the creation of Adam and Eve, and he notes that biblical scholars have long had a predilection to compose lists of precedents and parallels between what is reported in the first three chapters of Genesis and what one finds in the myths and stories of other Near Eastern peoples. There are, of course, many parallel images, ideas, and passages, but he wonders once the lists are composed and comparisons are made, is there anything that stands out as distinctive to the biblical tradition? He identifies just one: the Fall (Augustine of Hippo eat your heart out!).

This is not an assertion grasped out of thin air or simply dependent upon the writings of the great African Father of the Church. He cites an authority, a titan, in the realm of twentieth-century biblical criticism, perhaps the authority: Umberto Cassuto (Moshe David Cassuto).[3] Indeed, Calasso remarks that there is perhaps no other scholar, with the exception of Adolphe Lods, who has done more to reconstruct the literature of the pre-biblical epic.[4]

Calasso was not alone in his judgment of Cassuto. His reputation for scholarship and erudition was so well-regarded during his lifetime that he came to the attention of the Vatican Apostolic Library. Cassuto had moved to Rome from Florence to take up the chair of Hebrew studies at La Sapienza, following Giorgio Levi Della Vida being stripped of the position for his refusal to swear the fascist oath of loyalty.

During what proved to be a too brief sojourn in the Eternal City, the Library asked him to help with the cataloguing and study of the many Hebrew manuscripts in the collection (there are 723 Hebrew manuscripts in the collection Vaticani ebraici alone). In this role, Cassuto became one of a large number of Jewish scholars, including Levi Della Vida, who found safe haven in the shadow of the Apostolic Palace amid the increasingly hateful climate for Jews in Europe.[5] In his service to the Library during the 1930s, Cassuto, among his many other works, made an important study of the Hebrew manuscripts in the collection of books belonging to the former Bibliotheca Palatina of Heidelberg (containing 262 Hebrew manuscripts), which was gifted to the Vatican by Maximilian of Bavaria in the 1620s as spoils from the Thirty Years War.[6]

Cassuto’s greatest contribution to the Vaticana would have been the first descriptive and analytical catalogue for the collection Vaticani ebraici, but at his untimely death in 1951 the work was still mostly unfinished. The Vatican Library was able to publish Cassuto’s descriptions of the first 115 manuscripts in the collection posthumously in 1956.[7] Indeed, the Vatican Library held Cassuto in such high regard that it referred to him as “peritissimus rerum hebraicarum magister” in the preface to his catalog.[8]

With his assertion, therefore, Calasso stands on the shoulder of a giant. It is a claim not easy to dismiss or contradict, based on Cassuto’s deep knowledge both of the history of the biblical text and those of the surrounding cultures. It also frames Calasso’s thinking about the nature of sacrifice. The topic has been an area of special focus in his writing, as was beautifully pointed out by Scott Beauchamp. Here, Calasso performs an extended meditation on scripture to consider sacrifice in its totality. There is really no other way to describe a work that combines paraphrase, gloss, biblical exegesis, and literary criticism. Within this labyrinth, down each passageway and with each twist and turn, Calasso refines his thinking about sacrifice, probing ever deeper into its origins, its necessity, its paradoxes, and its infinite duration, until at last he reaches a fact that is both the biblical text’s fulfillment and its end: the Incarnation.

The word for an acceptable sacrifice in the biblical tradition is holocaust. This leads Calasso to a digression (in a book that is really nothing but a collection of digressions) to stress, as many others have done, the utter incongruity of using the term “holocaust” to refer to the systematic extermination of the Jews under the Nazi regime. While this criticism is well-known, Calasso’s larger point is about historical memory. It is commonly asserted that the best way to prevent such horrors from happening again is to keep them before society’s consciousness as a permanent reminder of what can, and must not be allowed to, occur. What chance of that, however, is there when the very word to label such an abomination is, in its original signification, positive?[9]

Guilt is contagious. It stains all internally much in the same way that Cain was marked externally. It cannot be avoided, and all who are so affected by this fault must do something as recompense. But what can a guilty person do to make adequate recompense for such an offense? How does one become acceptable?

The scriptures establish sacrifice as the most acceptable way to restore humanity’s right relationship with God. Sacrifice was, of course, common among ancient people, but the sacrifice prescribed by the biblical text was not one of appeasement or petition. Rather, it was one of atonement. Therefore, the sacrifice had to be pleasing to God. The story of Cain and Abel makes this point abundantly clear but in the starkest way possible. It also reveals several paradoxes inherent to the nature of sacrifice. God found Abel’s offering more pleasing than his brother’s. It was, consequently, almost inevitable that Abel had to die as the one judged acceptable. A sacrifice requires that the object of sacrifice be chosen, that is, it requires an election. This is a privilege, and the victim is selected because it fulfills certain criteria that will render those offering the sacrifice acceptable.

The victim, therefore, must be acceptable as well, and the Levitical law goes on at length about what kinds of animals must be sacrificed and when. But in this election is also a condemnation, and therefore a further paradox. In order to remove the stain of sin, it is necessary to commit what in a different context would be rightly considered another offense: the death of an innocent. Cain is found guilty of murder for doing what from a certain perspective seems like fulfilling the requirements of sacrifice.

A sacrifice done in atonement for a sin, a fault, or a crime carries with it an obligation. One must do something to make up for the initial fall, but because in this case the “crime,” as it were, was committed against an infinite being, it therefore entails an obligation that the biblical text makes clear can never be lifted. In Exodus, the law prescribes that a sacrifice must be done in the morning and in the evening of every day. Blood is an essential element in this sacrifice. It is the clearest sign of life and explains why in the end Abel’s sacrifice was found more pleasing.

The sacrifices in the Temple would have spilled a great deal of blood. At this point Calasso quotes the medieval scholar Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) who remarked in his Guide for the Perplexed that so much blood being poured out from the perpetual sacrifice would have resulted in a horrible stench. It seems a reasonable assumption that if the Romans legions had not destroyed the Temple while putting down the insurrection of 70 AD, the sacrifices offered there would have continued without end. Calasso sardonically remarks that perhaps if such were to be viewed as an improvement of “modernization,” then the Emperor Titus should be viewed in a more positive light.[10]

The scriptures themselves offer points of criticism for the practice of sacrifice, and Calasso makes reference to two in the books of the prophets Hosea (6:6) and Isaiah (1:11-13). It is these passages that led him ineluctably to refer to Jesus, culminating in his citation of the Letter to the Hebrews 9:12. Christ atones for the sins of humanity, acting as both priest and innocent victim. He spills his own blood on the altar, in a permanent sacrifice, done once and for all. The time of perpetual holocausts is at an end. The old law is fulfilled.

It is rather surprising to see Calasso’s thought take a rather Anselmian turn, which I will try to unpack for you in what follows. Other Christian authors have argued that salvation could only have been accomplished by a being both divine and human making acceptable recompense for the sins of humanity, but it is most readily associated with Anselm of Canterbury (ca.1033-1109). Anselm is considered one of the founders of the intellectual method commonly known as scholasticism, i.e., the one associated with the schools. This method is distinguished by highly refined logical analysis and dialectical rigor. Scholastic thinkers, drawing from their fundamental training in logic, sought to arrive at the truth of the matter in a given question by the minute analysis of contrary positions, bolstering their argument with recourse to the generally regarded theological and philosophical authorities. Some have found this approach alternately tedious or fatuous and not focused enough on biblical interpretation.

Beyond his well-known proof for the existence of God, his so-called ontological argument famously dismissed by Immanuel Kant, Anselm is known for his attempts to prove theological truths on the basis of reason alone without recourse to scriptural or other purely religious authority. In his treatise Why the God Became Man? (Cur Deus homo?),[11] Anselm set himself to argue that the necessity of the Incarnation could be proved by necessary reasons without relying on the authority of revelation.

His argument runs something like this: Human beings were supposed to love and honor God, an infinite being. The disobedience of the first parents breached this situation, such that, even if humanity returned with all speed and earnestness to loving and honoring God as it should, it was impossible to return to the way things were before the interruption. Indeed, that disobedience opened up an infinite and impenetrable gap between humanity and God. Only God could dispense and close this gap, but because the offense was committed by the first human beings it was not befitting to any true sense of justice for God simply to shrug off the sin. A human being needed to make adequate recompense. On its own this was clearly impossible. Therefore, the only way to restore the original situation between creatures and their infinite Creator was for a human being who had some kind of access to the infinite power of God to dispense an infinite offense. It therefore had to be the God-Man, a conclusion which is confirmed by the writings of sacred Scripture.

Sacrifice is all-consuming, eternal, and never satisfied. It derives its power from the blood of the innocent. When misused and controverted for irreligious purposes it can entail immense cruelty and suffering. The only endpoint for this was the Cross of Christ. In this way the paradoxes of sacrifice are most disconcertingly exposed and most wondrously resolved. The perpetual sacrifice offered once and for all, a mystery to be acknowledged and entered into with humility and reverence in every sacrifice of the Mass. In the end, Calasso’s extended meditation on the nature of sacrifice led him to the same point as Anselm’s exegesis.

[1] Much of what follows will be a paraphrase of Calasso’s work, unless otherwise specified.

[2] He died in Milan on 28 July 2021.

[3] U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis I: From Adam to Noah (Genesis I-VI.8), trans. I. Abrahams (Publications of the Perry Foundation for Biblical Research in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Jerusalem 1989, 83.

[4] Calasso, Il libro, 355.

[5] The Library as a place of refuge and work for Jewish scholars fleeing the racial laws of Germany and Italy has been documented by Paolo Vian, a long-time member of the Library’s Department of Manuscripts who is now the Vice Prefect of the Vatican Apostolic Archive; see especially his “L’opera del card. Giovanni Mercati per gli studiosi perseguitati per motivi razziali. L’appello alle università americane (15 dicembre 1938),” in Miscellanea Bibliothecae Apostolicae Vaticane IX (2002), 427-500.

[6] U. Cassuto, I manoscritti Palatini ebraici della Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana e la loro storia (Studi e testi 66), Città del Vaticano 1935.

[7] Codices Vaticani Hebraici. Codices 1-115, recensuit H. Cassuto, Città del Vaticano 1956. All of the Hebrew manuscripts were microfilmed in the 1960s. These films are kept by the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts at the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. With their collaboration an English descriptive catalogue of 617 manuscripts was published in 2008: Hebrew Manuscripts in the Vatican Library. Catalogue (Studi e testi 438), Città del Vaticano 2008.

[8] This quotation forms the title of a fine article on Cassuto’s relation to the Vatican Library among his other accomplishments: P. F. Fumagtalli, “Umberto Cassuto, Peritissimus rerum hebraicarum magister,” in La Rassegna mensile di Israel 82.2-3 (2016), 285-294.

[9] Calasso, Il libro, 382-383.

[10] Calasso, Il libro, 447: “Ma, se questo sviluppo viene considerato come una evoluzione positiva - secondo l’uso corrente della parola ‘modernizzazione’, qui non messo in causa -, ne conseguirà che gli Ebrei dovrebbero vedere in Tito un loro benefattore e non un persecutore.”

[11] St. Anselm: Proslogium; Monologium: An Appendix In Behalf Of The Fool By Gaunilo; And Cur Deus Homo, Translated From The Latin By Sidney Norton Deane, B. A. With An Introduction, Bibliography, And Reprints Of The Opinions Of Leading Philosophers And Writers On The Ontological Argument, (Chicago, The Open Court Publishing Company,, 1903, reprinted 1926), available at

Featured Image: Screen capture of Roberto Calasso from the inaugural Rene Girard lecture in 2014, Fair Use.


Stephen M. Metzger

Stephen Metzger is Assistant Scriptor at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame's Medieval Institute and the author of the two-volume Gerard of Abbeville, Secular Master, on Knowledge, Wisdom and Contemplation.

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