In my introductory religion class at Stonehill I was teaching about the Marcionite Christians, followers of the second-century Christian Marcion of Sinope, who wished to see a Christianity without any Jewish influence. This posed rather a tricky problem for Marcion, seeing as Jesus was born Jewish and seemed to claim the lineage of the Jewish prophets. That Jesus viewed himself as Jewish is not only the conclusion of modern biblical scholarship; it seems to have been the view present in the scriptures that Marcion himself encountered. Marcion, it seems, took the Gospel of Luke as known to him and edited out everything that looked Jewish.
Why did he do this? I suppose it could have been merely a cynical move to gain followers, but Marcionism had an appeal that lasted long after Marcion’s death; I don’t see much reason to believe that Marcion didn’t believe what he was writing. But this is still puzzling. To our eyes it seems like an awful sort of arrogance to edit historical writings according to one’s own theology. One might ask: how could he have believed any of this?
In trying to understand Marcion I can only think of the popular view expressed in the Mahāyāna Adhyāśayasaṃcodana Sūtra, that “whatever is well spoken is the word of the Buddha.” This was a justification used for the newly emerging Mahāyāna s?tras. It’s pretty clear from any historical standpoint that no such texts existed during the Buddha’s lifetime; the Mahāyāna was a new phenomenon, and many of its creators seemed to know it. They justified the composition of new s?tras by arguing: the Buddha knows everything, so anything that is correct is therefore effectively spoken by the Buddha. Surely this is what Marcion was up to: because Jesus was God, he could only have spoken the truth. So since the content of the revised Marcionite Gospels were true, as we could presumably ascertain on scripture-independent grounds, it must therefore have been what Jesus really said.
Which brings us back to the previous post‘s discussion of authenticity. It’s strange to me that today we put such a high value on things being what they have always been, unchosen by contemporary people. But the premodern view of authenticity is curious in its own way. If you are already so convinced that your new scripture is true, why do you need to attribute it to the Buddha or to Jesus? Why not just admit that you found the truth yourself?
I guess I can start to see an answer when I look at what people do try to come up with from scratch, without connection to the past. Modernist attempts to rebuild society from the ground up didn’t work very well. And individually, when we avoid submitting to the guidance of a tradition, we run the risk of merely believing what we want to believe, being guided by our persistent and troublesome unconscious desires rather than by the truth. That’s why I have myself argued that in some cases it is important to argue that some people and practices are not really Buddhist. The example that comes to my mind here is Gary Snyder’s horrifying Smokey the Bear Sutra: a “Buddhist” text advocating ecologically motivated violence and wrath. I try to avoid feelings of offence, but that text felt like a slap in the face toward Buddhist critiques of anger.
Here there seems to be a justified continuity between premodern and modern authenticity: our individual choice leads us too easily to the wrong places. This idea is at the heart of a chastened intellectualist view of human nature, a view shared by thinkers as diverse as Augustine, Xunzi and Freud. If we just do what we choose and believe what we discover for ourselves, we will be led astray: to sin (Augustine), to chaos and disharmony (Xunzi), to repression, neurosis and pathology (Freud). Rather, we need to be humble, to submit ourselves to others with greater vision than ours. I wonder if the contemporary search for authenticity is an aestheticization of this view: there’s something objectively better that happens when a North American discovers the pleasures of Chinese food developed over generations in China, as opposed to the Chinese food designed to conform to his North American sweet tooth at the Panda Hut around the corner. Rather than having one’s existing tastes pandered to, one educates one’s palate, becomes a connoisseur.
Then again, I’m not sure this answers the question of why people write or edit new scriptures and claim their authenticity. One might rightly want to aim at humility, seeking to prevent the arrogance of believing oneself in charge of the whole truth. But isn’t it just as arrogant to believe that one’s own discovery is not only the truth, but the word of the Buddha or Jesus himself?