The gnostic Secret Book of James, probably written sometime around 200 AD in Egypt, takes the form of a letter from St. James with secret advice from Jesus intended only for the fortunate select. In it, James addresses topics ranging from the importance of being filled with God's spirit to the nature of prophecy. He also includes some parables that do not appear in the New Testament.
Though James claims that he had to write the letter "in Hebrew letters" to make sure it didn't fall into the wrong hands, our version of the text, from the Nag Hammadi collection, is a Coptic translation of a Greek original that appears to have been lost to history.
In typical gnostic form, the text can read like a riddle. James quotes Jesus: "This is why I told you, 'Be filled,' so that you will not lack. Those who lack will not be saved. To be filled is good and to lack is bad." So far, so good. But, "since it is also good for you to lack and bad for you to be filled, if you're filled you also lack...." That's the riddle. The answer — only slightly less baffling than the question — is that people should "be filled with spirit but lack in reason, because reason belongs to the soul."
The notions of "filled," "lacking," "spirit" and "soul" are part of an intricate theological and philosophical system (which is why some English versions don't even translate them) that contrasts fullness with lack and spirit with soul.
Alongside the complex theology, James relates new parables in Jesus's name. For instance, heaven's kingdom is like a palm whose dates have dropped to the ground. Though it's difficult now to decipher the ancient text, the point seems to be that the palm produced buds which dried up after they grew and produced their own fruit. Then that fruit did the same. And so on. So, too, Jesus's kingdom comes to those who can produce new plants.
According to the letter, this new parable complements "the Shepherds" (probably John 10:6-9), "the Seed" (Mark 4:26-29), "the Building" (Matthew 7:24-27), "the Lamps of the Young Women" (Matthew 25:1-13), "the Wage of the Workers" (Matthew 20:1-16), and so on.
As early as the 2nd century, St. Irenaeus [of Lyons] was insisting2 that there had to be only four gospels because "there are four zones in the world" and "four principal winds." He condemned3 those who thought there were more than four as people who wanted it to seem as though they had discovered more truth than there really is.
This sounds a lot like the people who preserved the Secret Book of James. Yet while Irenaeus and others were dismissing their endeavors, they themselves were lamenting the narrow-sightedness of the emerging power structure, represented by Peter in the text here.
With the Secret Book of James, we have more insight into the debate that was raging only a few decades after Jesus died, and into the thinking of serious early Christians whose detailed work was almost lost completely.