Apocryphon of James

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The Apocryphon of James, also known by the translation of its title – the Secret Book of James, is a pseudonymous text amongst the New Testament apocrypha. It describes the secret teachings of Jesus to Peter and James, given after the Resurrection but before the Ascension.

A major theme is that one must accept suffering as inevitable. The prominence of James and Peter suggest that the work originated in the Jewish Christian community. It shows no dependence on canonical texts, and was probably written in the first half of the 2nd century.[1] It has Gnostic affinities but cannot be attributed to any Gnostic sect, and some scholars rule that it is not Gnostic at all.[2]


The text survives in a single, damaged manuscript as the second section of the Jung Codex, first of the thirteen codices in the Nag Hammadi library. Although the text appears to be a Coptic translation from Greek, the author claims to have written in Hebrew. Because of references to persecution and martyrdom, it is unlikely that the text was written after 313, when Constantine I ended Christian persecution. Other clues in the text point to a composition in the 2nd century, and perhaps in the first half.


The text is framed as an epistle (i.e. a letter) from James to someone else whose name is obscured by the damage to the text. The author describes Jesus expanding on various sayings and answering questions 550 days after the Resurrection, but before the Ascension. Both James and Peter are given secret instruction, but at the end only James appears to understand what has happened. (As with the Gospel of John 1–20 and the Gospel of Mary, in this book Peter has implicitly failed the Christian movement).

Jesus gives teachings in unusual and seemingly contradictory phrases, and also offers brief parables. He invites Peter and James into the Kingdom of Heaven with him, but they are distracted by the other apostles' questions and miss their chance. Afterwards, James is described as sending out the 12 apostles, indicating (as in other apocryphal documents) that James initially succeeded Jesus as the leader of the movement.

The brief framing letter appears independent of the remainder of the text, suggesting to some that the Apocryphon may have originated as multiple separate texts redacted together. This framing letter references a previous "secret gospel", which has apparently been lost. Within the Apocryphon, the discussions of martyrdom and prophecy also appear to be somewhat separate, indicating an original text, for the main body of the document, which was composed of brief sayings. It is still debated whether the closest parallels to the New Testament canon are part of the Apocryphon's last redactional hand or else part of its sources.

Relation to other texts

To many scholars, the flavor of the sayings appears somewhat gnostic in tone, primarily because its doctrines do not accord with orthodox interpretation of canonical scripture. The manuscript was also found among explicit gnostic teachings in the Nag Hammadi Library. The text also uses gnostic terms, such as referring to "fullness" as a means to salvation, but the doctrines in the Apocryphon of James certainly do not accord with the Valentinian or other developed gnostic cosmologies, so it is not usually counted as a truly gnostic text.

Many of the sayings appear to be shared with the canonical Gospels, and the text includes this reference to other sayings: "It sufficed for some persons to pay attention to the teaching and understand 'The Shepherds' and 'The Seed' and 'The Building' and 'The Lamps of the Virgins' and 'The Wage of the Workers' and 'The Double Drachma' and 'The Woman'." The references to salvation through "the cross" seem to imply familiarity with Paul's letters, or at least his teachings. But its introduction says, "And five hundred and fifty days after he arose from the dead, we said to him: ...", which is considerably longer than the forty days which Luke's Acts of the Apostles gives for the Ascension. Some have felt that this implies that the relationship of the Apocryphon of James with the canon is through oral tradition, and that the community which wrote it rejected or else did not know Luke-Acts. (On the other hand, Irenaeus in Against Heresies gave a time span of eighteen months, and Irenaeus was certainly familiar with the work.) Some scholars posit that the earliest version of the Apocryphon was independent of the canonical gospels, but that an unknown redactor knew of and referenced canonical works in the known edition.


  1. ^ http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/secretjames.html
  2. ^ "James, Apocryphal Epistle of." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005


  • Online Translation of the Apocryphon of James
  • Miller, Robert J., The Complete Gospels, pp. 332–342. Polebridge Press, 1992. ISBN 0-944344-49-6
  • Williams, Francis E., "The Apocryphon of James (Introduction and Translation)", from The Nag Hammadi Library, James M. Robinson (ed.), p. 29
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