The Apocryphon of James

Printed in the  Spring 2020  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Johnson, Kelly"The Apocryphon of James " Quest 108:2, pg 37-40

By Kelly Johnson

Several years ago I stumbled upon a story that captivated me to the very depths of my soul (and still does). It is the story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi scriptures, a collection of fifty-two Gnostic Christian texts, buried in the Egyptian desert for over sixteen hundred years and unexpectedly dug up in 1945.

Since learning of the Nag Hammadi discovery, I have spent hours and hours in utter fascination researching the story of these ancient texts. Doing this has led me to delve into the early history of Christianity from shortly after the death of Jesus, around AD 32, to the fourth century, when the Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity as the formal religion of the Roman Empire. I have learned of the many different Christian sects that emerged during this period, and have become interested by the conflict and unrest that the beliefs of these sects provoked in the leaders of the Catholic church.

As I have read the texts of the Nag Hammadi library, several have resonated deeply with me, but it is the Apocryphon of James that has inspired me the most. The Apocryphon of James, or The Secret Teachings of James, is found in the first of the thirteen codices of this library. This codex, comprising five texts, is known as as the Jung Codex, because shortly after the discovery of the Nag Hammadi scriptures in 1945, the Carl Jung Foundation purchased it. At that point it had been smuggled out of Egypt into America and found its way onto the black market.

The discovery of the Nag Hammadi scriptures, deemed to be the most significant collection of lost Christian writings to have ever been rediscovered, makes for an enthralling tale. The story began in a barren, desolate area of upper Egypt, beneath the rugged rock cliffs of Jabel-al-Tarif. In December 1945, an Arab peasant by the name of Muhammed Al-Sammon, with seven of his peasant friends, was digging for a soft soil called sabakh, which he would use to fertilize his crops. The cliffs of Jabel-al-Tarif are located along the right bank of the Nile, approximately five miles north of the small town of Nag Hammadi. These mountains are laden with hundreds of caves, which served as ancient burial sites and tombs in the Sixth Dynasty (2345–2181 BC), and which centuries afterwards were the dwelling grounds of mystics and hermits.

On the day of this discovery, Muhammed and his friends were digging around a large boulder under the cliffs when they hit something hard. They found a sealed earthenware jar, approximately six feet tall, buried beneath the soil. Although they were initially reluctant to break the jar open for fear that it might be inhabited by a jinn, or evil spirit, Muhammed and his friends finally smashed it open. But they did not find a jinn. As the jar shattered into pieces, they noticed tiny specks of gold flying through the air, which turned out to be small fragments of papyrus, delicate and brittle after centuries of being buried in the desert. The jar had contained thirteen papyrus codices bound in leather. Scholars estimated that the books were over 1600 years old. These books came to be known as the Nag Hammadi scriptures.

Most of the texts were written in Coptic, the latest form of the ancient Egyptian language, spoken from the second through the thirteenth centuries AD and written in an adapted Greek alphabet. The texts were mostly Gnostic treatises, most of which had been initially written in Greek and thought to have been translated into Coptic around the fourth century. The Nag Hammadi collection included a translation of a portion of Plato’s Republic and a set of three Greek wisdom texts that were part of the Corpus Hermeticum or “Hermetic body” of texts.

Gnosticism was the name given to a category of ancient religious ideas originating in the first and second centuries AD. Claiming to offer secret traditions about Jesus, these teachings focused on an intuitive process of  knowing oneself at the deepest level. The Gnostics believed that through such an inner knowing, one would also know God.

The texts were discovered near the ruins of the ancient Chenoboskion monastery, an early Christian community consisting of monks, nuns, ascetics, and hermits. As a result, these texts are also known as the Chenoboskion manuscripts.

The monastic movement is traced back to the monk Anthony the Great, an esteemed religious figure of his time, who made this area his home in 270–71. So profound was the impact of Anthony that he has been called the father of Christian monasticism. This monastery was later dedicated to, and renamed after, Pachomius, another influential religious figure of the time, who had converted to Christianity while at the monastery.

James Robinson, one of the translators of the Nag Hammadi scriptures, has suggested that the books of this library may have belonged to the monks of the Pachomius monastery and that they buried the books in the jar for safekeeping. Robinson believes this may have occurred after the Festal Letter written by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in 367 AD. Every year, the bishop would write a letter dictating the date on which Easter was to be celebrated that year. In the letter of 367, Athanasius also listed the twenty-seven books that were to be read by the faithful as sacred scripture. Because this list sets out the New Testament as we know it today, Athanasius is thought to have created the canon of the New Testament. He condemned any other books aside from these (apart from a few that, though not canonical, could be read for edification, such as the Didache, or “Teaching,” of the Twelve Apostles and The Shepherd of Hermas). All others were forbidden to be read or owned.

I have been impressed by the immense diversity of views within the Christianity of that period. At that point, the religion’s formal structure and the ultimate direction that it would take had not yet been defined or organized. As a result, many currents of Christian thought flowed during this era. Over fifty gospels were circulating within the various Christian sects, and each sect subscribed to a select few of these gospels as their own. Even within the Gnostic framework, there were many different variations of religious thought.

Some scholars have suggested that the recipient of James’s letter may have been the Gnostic teacher Cerinthus. Cerinthus was a prominent and controversial figure in the Christianity of the latter half of the first century and the first part of the second century. Educated in the wisdom teachings of the Egyptians, he maintained that his religious inspiration had come to him from the angelic realm. Cerinthus lived and taught in Ephesus, the city where the apostle John was believed to have gone after his imprisonment on the island of Patmos.

Much has been written of the enmity between Cerinthus and John. Some believed that John had written both Revelation and the Gospel attributed to him to refute the claims of Cerinthus. To add further complexity, the Alogi, a Christian sect of the second century, asserted that the Gospel of John and Revelation had been written by Cerinthus, not by John.

Cerinthus used a gospel similar to one used by a sect called the Ebionites, which taught that Jesus was not born of a virgin but of Mary and Joseph, and that the Spirit of God descended upon him at his baptism and left him at his crucifixion. 

During the late second century, the bishop Irenaeus of Lyon declared that there could only be one church, the Catholic church, and that no viewpoints other than the Catholic view were to be tolerated. Iraneus published a work, Against the Heresies, attacking Gnostic views with vehemence. By AD 200, the proto-catholic church had become an institution dominated by a hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons. Any religious views that were not in alignment with theirs were denounced as heresy.

Nevertheless, the confrontations and challenges that the Gnostics and others made to Christian orthodoxy profoundly influenced Catholic leaders and teachers and in turn shaped the course of Christianity.

In the fourth century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, possession of any books that were seen as heretical now became a criminal offense. These books were burned or destroyed and their owners persecuted.

Many of the monasteries in this period were devoted to copying or translating religious texts and possessed large libraries, so it is logical to assume that the Pachomius monastery would have had such a library. Conceivably, instead of burning these texts, as Athanasius had ordered, the monks buried them in the desert.

The Apocryphon of James is one of these texts. The book was probably first written in Greek (although it claims to have been written in Hebrew; in any case, the original is lost) in the first half of the second century. It discusses secret teachings presented to Peter and Jesus’s brother James by Jesus.

Scholars of the Nag Hammadi scriptures have come to believe that Jesus offered two levels of teachings: one meant for the masses and for most of Jesus’s disciples, the other reserved for a select few who were able to comprehend the deeper meanings. It is believed that Jesus revealed his secret teachings to only a chosen few disciples within his inner circle; to all others he offered the more general teachings and parables that were easier to comprehend.  The Apocryphon of James discusses these secret teachings, claiming to highlight the inner processes by which one enters into the kingdom of heaven.

The gospel takes the form an epistle written by James to a third person, describing a conversation between the risen Jesus, Peter, and James himself. The text also mentions a previous letter that James had written ten months previously and sent to this same person, but this letter has never been located.

According to James’s letter, Peter does not understand the meaning of what Jesus is saying, but James does, albeit with a limited degree of comprehension.

 “Do you not desire to be filled?” Jesus asks James and Peter. Jesus attempts to explain the principle of gnosis to them, articulating that gnosis, or knowledge, is the path through which salvation can be attained. “Know yourselves,” he urges. Errors occur when one lives under a veil of ignorance, Jesus explains; gnosis occurs when one moves beyond ignorance, and beyond reason, to a higher interior state, which is an intuitive knowing. This knowing is reflective rather than rational, and occurs through observation, or experience. Jesus talks of the importance of emptying the physical vessel so that it may be filled “with all that is fresh and pure.” He instructs James and Peter to “be filled and leave no space within you empty.” When they are filled with the fullness of God, they are ready to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

We can understand Jesus to mean that when we sit in stillness and empty our mind of ego, we are capable of the spiritual receptivity that allows us to touch the divine energy within us—the deepest, most essential aspect of ourselves. “Understand what the great Light is,” Jesus urges. Jesus tells James and Peter that to truly know themselves in this manner is to know God. It is to have a direct access and pathway to God, without the mediation of others, whether they be rabbis, priests, or bishops. To know oneself, Jesus reminds James and Peter, at the very deepest level, is to know God.

Jesus tells James and Peter that he has shown them the path to Christhood, emphasizing that this path is for them to pursue only when they are ready. There is an inference here that each of us comes to this path when our souls are mature and prepared, and not before. Jesus tells both James and Peter that they are to rely on, and listen to, their own inner wisdom; this self-governance is to be gradually cultivated within each person as they learn to walk upon, and honor, their personal path. “Shame on you who are in need of an advocate,” Jesus admonishes. We do not need others to direct our spiritual path for us, or to provide us with instruction.

 Jesus then tells James and Peter that we are to each work on ourselves for the sake of others. This is our highest responsibility: to develop ourselves so that we may be better equipped to offer the deepest level of love, compassion, and wisdom to all of humanity. This continual self-development will increase our capacity to offer service, not only to those we know intimately, but to those with whom we come into contact superficially and casually. We are expected to always give our best, with Jesus as our example. “Blessings on you who have acquired grace for yourself,” he tells James and Peter. With elevated understanding and awareness, with the attainment of truth, comes accountability. For all of us.

Furthermore, each of differs in our distinctive qualities, the relative maturity of our souls, our personal and cultural experiences, and our perceptions of the world around us. Consequently, we must know that there will always be differing viewpoints. For those of us who model our lives after any of the great spiritual masters, whether Jesus, Mohammed, or Buddha, it is important to see the highest in those around us, to open to those who hold differing viewpoints, and to refrain from imposing judgment on views that differ from our own. We must model acceptance. We must look deep within, to know ourselves, to touch the core of our hearts and thus be able to affirm and articulate our own personal truth with clarity—and to do so in such a way that each of us may walk our own path with quiet strength, conviction, and an acceptance of the paths of others. No human-developed system, religious or otherwise, can ever fulfill our deepest needs, nor can it ever soothe the restless voice within. These can only be appeased through an inner knowing of ourselves, through a process of honest, inner questioning whereby we open to our deepest self. The Gnostics referred to this place as our Godhead, the essence of who we are deep within. It is in this interior space, where we are able to remember the sacred essence of our inner divinity, where we listen to our soul’s call and affirm our deepest truth.


Decoding Jesus’ Relationship with Mary Magdalene. Video documentary, CNN.

The Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library with Gilles Quispel. Video documentary.

Gnosis: The Unknown Jesus. Video documentary.

Gnostic Gospels: The Lost Gospels Full Documentary. Video documentary.

Jones, Pete Owen. Gnosis: The Lost Gospels. Video documentary, BBC, 2008.

Meyer, Marvin, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. New York: Harper Collins, 2007.

Pagels, Elaine. Beyond Belief. New York: Random House, 2003.

———. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979.

Kelly Johnson is a Christian mystic, writer, poet, spiritual counselor and student of the Nag Hammadi scriptures.  A registered nurse for over twenty-six years, married to the same wonderful man for thirty-six years, Kelly is currently working on her first book, a set of devotional reflections based on the writings of Meister Eckhart.


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