APOCRYPHON OF JAMES
Also known as the Apocryphal Epistle of James, the second tractate in Codex I of the NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY. It occupies sixteen pages, all well preserved except for the first three. The Coptic text apparently had no title. It is a translation into Subakhmimic Coptic of a Greek work that taught a rather conservative Christian gnosticism. Since it deals extensively with the subject of martyrdom, its unknown author must have produced it before the peace of the church in A.D. 314; how long before is uncertain. Equally uncertain is the place of writing, though this must have been in the eastern Mediterranean world, and Egypt is likely.
The main body of the work, which consists of a series of speeches put in the mouth of the risen Jesus, calls itself an “apocryphon.” Jesus is represented as reappearing to the “twelve disciples” 550 days after the Resurrection and taking James the Lord’s brother and Peter aside. To them he imparts—”openly” rather than “in parables”—a definitive revelation superior to the canonical one. The “apocryphon” closes on page 15 with an account of Jesus’ real and final ascent into heaven. In a mystical vision, James and Peter follow him in stages that correspond to the ascents of the heart, the mind, and the spirit. The unexpected return of the other disciples during the vision, however, prevents their spirits from penetrating to the throne of God.
This “apocryphon” is preceded and followed by a “letter” from James “in the Hebrew alphabet,” addressed to a recipient whose name is mutilated. Opening in typical Hellenistic letter form, the letter segment informs the recipient that James is sending this apocryphon at his request, and reminds him of “another apocryphon” sent “ten months ago.” Attempts to identify the “other apocryphon” have failed. The letter, which resumes on page 16 following the “apocryphon” section, predicts the appearance of “sons who will be born”—presumably the Gnostic community for whom the work was written—and states that the revelation is for their sakes.
As important as the “letter” and “apocryphon” are, the exhortations to martyrdom that occupy pages 5 and 6 of the apocryphon are central. Stylistically this segment has much in common with other such exhortations in the second and third Christian centuries, but it goes beyond them in seeming to demand that the believer volunteer to be martyred. Thus he will be made “equal” with Jesus and gain the Kingdom of God.
It is notable that James’s name regularly precedes Peter’s and that the tractate emphatically makes James chief of the apostles (cf. Acts 15; Gal. 2:9). In this it joins various Gnostic and Jewish Christian works, in addition to the New Testament, in which James, rather than Peter, is the guarantor of true doctrine. It is difficult to identify this apocryphon with any form of gnosticism named and described by the church fathers.
The Apocryphon of James shows many points of agreement with doctrines in the New Testament. Recipients of its message will be filled with the Spirit, have the Kingdom of Heaven within them, and be assured of salvation. They are invited to believe, to gain knowledge, and then to enter the Kingdom by effort, zeal, and earnest prayer.
They will thus follow the Savior where he has gone or, alternatively, “be received” into the Kingdom. The document’s Gnostic terminology, its lack of doctrines of the atonement, Second Coming, and general resurrection, and its claim to be a later and superior revelation have led most interpreters to declare it Gnostic.
The exhortation to martyrdom as well as many similar admonitions toward faith, zeal, effort, and knowledge make up the main themes of the tractate. There is a question whether the work is composite or the product of one author, but its overall purpose was clearly to kindle courage and zeal in an afflicted community.
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- Epistula Jacobi Apocrypha with Particular Reference to Salvation. Ph.D. Dissertation, Oxford University, 1975.
- Kirchner, D. Epistula Jacobi Apocrypha, Die erste Schrift aus Nag- Hammadi-Codex I, neu herausgegeben und kommentiert, 2 vols. Ph.D. Dissertation, Berlin-Humboldt University, 1977.
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- Orientalistische Literaturzeitung 66 (1971):117-30.
- Williams, F. E. “The Apocryphon of James.” In The Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. J. M. Robinson. New York, 1977.
FRANK E. WILLIAMS