In the Secret Book of James, Jesus encourages us to never settle with the straightforward reading or interpretation of scripture. That sounds pretty odd– it should be easy to read scripture, right? Offhand, that sounds like a pretty clear-cut question– texts should be accessible and easy to read. After all, don’t wThe Secret Book of James, On Scripture and Knowledgee want to make sure that as many people as possible can hear and understand a text, and that they all get the correct message?

An Apology for Difficult Texts

In reality, though, things aren’t that clear cut. After all– no matter how straightforward a text may seem, people still seem to often disagree about the message. Some thinkers have thought that this is a positive, not a negative, attribute– that texts should have an element of difficulty to them. For a text to really change a person, that person must engage with a text beyond a superficial level, and a person must struggle with and internalize the text.

To offer some historical examples–

Kierkegaard carefully developed both thought and form to prevent easy and superficial reading, requiring the either/or of thoughtful reading or no illusion of having really read it at all… we do not have an author to consider but ourselves– merely prompted in our reflections by an author.

    • In the Jewish mystical tradition, professor Daniel Matt’s translation of the Zohar contains the following text about the essence of the Torah. A man who lived in the mountains eating nothing but raw wheat kernels came down to the city and was exposed to bread for the first time…

“What is this?” he asked. The city people answered, “It’s bread. It’s for eating.”
He ate it and it was very good. He asked, “What is it made of?” They told him, “It’s made from wheat.”
Later, they brought the man cakes of flour mixed with oil. He tasted them and asked again, “What are these made of?” Again, the people told him, “They are made from wheat.”

Afterwards, the city people gave the man pastry fit for a king made with oil and honey. The man asked, “What is this made of?” They answered, “It’s made from wheat.”
The man then said, “Enough. I am the master of all of these things, for I eat the essence of all of them — wheat!”

This is what he thought, but actually he knew nothing of the world’s delights. It was lost on him. Thus it is for one who grasps an idea, but knows nothing of the delights that flow from it.

This story illustrates, among other things, that one who grasps merely the superficial understanding of a text is like one who eats raw kernels of wheat. Additional processing– cooking, adding oil, adding honey– all add to the richness and substance. One may be technically correct that a pastry and a grain of wheat are of the same essential substance, but to reduce one’s experience to the simplest and most basic ingredients is to lose richness, flavor, and substance. It is the same, the author of the Zohar might think, for religious texts.

A similar argument is made in the Secret Book of James, an early Christian text dating probably to the late 100s or early 200s AD. In fact, it borrows many of the same themes as the parable in the Zohar! Interested in learning more? Click below to find out!



Transforming Seeds to Bread

The Secret Book of James includes this parable:

[Jesus said,] “The word is like a grain of wheat. When someone sowed it, he had faith in it, and when it sprouted, he loved it, because he saw many grains instead of just one. And after he worked, he was saved because he prepared it as food and he still kept some out to sow. “This is also how you can acquire heaven’s kingdom for yourselves. Unless you acquire it through knowledge, you will not be able to find it.”

Fascinating, isn’t it, that this passage leverages such a similar parable to the Zohar? So, in this passage, the word– scripture– is like a grain of wheat. Those who simply have it and accept do, in fact, have it, but it’s not exactly worth much. Faith in scripture is compared to sowing the wheat, and the product of that sowing– sprouting– is compared to Christian love. When famine came, the one who actually sowed the wheat they had was saved, for he was able to nourish himself.

What might the passage mean by the claim that he “still kept some out to sow”? In the example, obviously, it means that the farmer didn’t cook all of his wheat into bread; he left some to continue sowing. How should we as readers interpret that? I think Jesus wants us to never cease harvesting meaning from scripture. If we say, “ah, ha! We worked really hard to understand the true meaning of the text, and now we’re done– there is nothing left to understand!”, then we have failed to keep grains available to sow and will starve next season.


Jesus’ Commandment to Know Yourselves

Shortly after this, Jesus offers another parable about grain, which can help to explain what the author of the Secret Book of James understood this to imply:

[Jesus] said, “I say this to you that you may know yourselves. Heaven’s kingdom is like a head of grain that sprouted in a field. And when it was ripe, it scattered its seed, and again it filled the field with heads of grain for another year.

So with you, be eager to harvest for yourselves a head of the grain of life that you may be filled with the kingdom. “And as long as I am with you, pay attention to me and trust in me, but when I am far from you, remember me. And remember me because I was with you and you did not know me. “Blessed will they be who have known me.

Jesus, in this text, commands us– even more clearly in the first example– to allow the kingdom of God to continue growing and blossoming in our spirits by knowing Jesus. That knowledge is not static– it grows and sprouts, but then is scattered and again continues to grow and sprout. If our understanding of Jesus and our knowledge of him is static, we will starve when we run out of grain; it must continue to grow and be cyclically redeveloped.

I think this is a really mature and insightful approach to understanding scripture and what it means to know Jesus. Too often, we read a text and assume we have everything nicely tied together. In reality, scriptures– both canonical and non-canonical– are vibrant and sprouting with life; as long as we allow the seeds to sprout and we help them to be constantly reseeded in ourselves, the supply of nourishment is endless!

Leave a Reply