The text itself is remarkably well preserved for its age; it was reported that the cache of texts called the "Nag Hammadi library", when originally found, were sealed within a large terracotta vessel. Doubtless they were secreted during the fourth century, in an effort to hide the texts from destruction by others.
The form of the text is primarily that of a Revelation Dialogue/Discourse between James the Just (the brother of Jesus – according to the text, James is not physically Jesus' brother) and Jesus, with a rather fragmentary account of the martyrdom of Saint James(?) appended to the bottom of the manuscript, connected to the remainder by an oblique reference to crucifixion. The first portion of the text describes James' understandable concern about being crucified, whereas the latter portion describes secret passwords given to James so that he can ascend to the highest heaven (out of seventy-two) after dying, without being blocked by evil powers of the demiurge.
Some of the framing background details about James given in the text are thought by academics to reflect early traditions; according to the text:
James fled to Pella when the Romans invaded Jerusalem in 70AD. This contradicts the testimony of Josephus and Eusebius who both state that James was executed in Jerusalem in 62 AD.
One of the most curious features of the First Apocalypse of James is that the range of dating of its original text, assigned to it by scholars, requires that it was written after the Second Apocalypse of James.
^Markschies, Christoph (trans. John Bowden), (2000). Gnosis: An Introduction. T & T Clark. See details at Nag Hammadi library.
^The text begins "It is the Lord who spoke with me: "See now the completion of my redemption. I have given you a sign of these things, James, my brother. For not without reason have I called you my brother, although you are not my brother materially.".