Gathering Early Christian History

Collector has more than 20,000 volumes of church writings

BRENT WALTERS may not share all the doctrinal or fund-raising proclivities of the televangelists, but he shares their ability to talk about religion with riveting intensity. He even shares some of their TV time.

When he's not teaching in the religion department of San Jose State University, or organizing courses for his College of Early Christian Studies, or preparing his weekly ``Origins'' television program, Mr. Walters is buried among his books.

In his case, that means a good deal more than settling in an easy chair with a favorite bestseller. Walters's volumes number more than 20,000. They are electronically cataloged and cross-referenced, and include rare works that would grace the libraries of major universities.

What this energetic man with the engaging grin and rapid-fire speech has is perhaps the country's largest private collection of books, manuscripts, and journal articles - more than 50,000 of the latter - related to the first 300 years of the Christian church. He has been collecting since age 16, when he first realized, as he came across the apocryphal Gospel of Peter in a bookstore, that many writings from those early years never made it into the New Testament.

Much of that material is of questionable value theologically, Walters acknowledges. He draws an analogy between the New Testament's books and the United States Constitution. They are the foundational works. But other writings from Christianity's pioneering period can complement them.

Walters particularly prizes the works of the early church fathers, such as Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp. They, like the apostles, wrote letters to the congregations of their day. The Christian apologists, Justin Martyr for example, are also favorites of his.

He is in regular contact with book dealers in London and other English cities. ``They know what I want,'' Walters says. For years, much of his income as a building contractor - his other, now-abandoned employment - went toward collecting.

``My intent,'' he says, ``is to be a central source in the world for people in this field.''

IN terms of history, the ``field'' stretches from 400 BC through the formulation of the Nicene Creed AD 325, during Emperor Constantine's reign, when Christian doctrine was set in church law.

``I lose interest once it becomes codified,'' he says.

Kenneth Kramer, a professor of religious studies at San Jose (Calif.) State, has known Walters since he was an undergraduate there. Walters later got a master's degree in theological studies from Boston University in Boston and is about to enter a doctoral program at San Jose.

``Brent does have an agenda,'' says Professor Kramer, ``a neutral agenda - not to convince anyone he's right, or that he's got the truth, but to simply present the historical documents and invite people to form their own attitudes based on the material.''

The Ante-Nicene Archive, as Walters calls his collection, resides in the upper level of a detached garage at Walters's home in Boulder Creek, Calif. His long-term plans include a permanent home for the archive - a ``museum setting'' where he could continue to serve as curator.

Walters takes a visitor through a labyrinth of wooden and metal bookshelves. He stops to take out a collecting coup: a 1643 edition of the writings of Clement of Rome, a Christian leader and martyr in the 1st century AD.

The thick, leather-bound book - the first English edition of Clement - is in prime condition, its high-linen-content pages showing little sign of decay. He bought the book by mail from a dealer in Hull, England, for $96 - an incredible bargain, Walters says.

Alongside English translations are shelves of volumes in Greek and Latin. Walters revels in pointing out the shift between the original Greek meaning of familiar religious terms and the traditional interpretation.

Take ``repentance,'' for instance. The core meaning in the Greek, says Walters, is to change your mind, to think differently, not merely to feel sorry and turn away from wrong behavior. Or ``faith.'' In the Greek, he says, the meaning is knowledge, not blind acceptance or belief.

What about the healings of disease and other ``miracles'' associated with the apostolic era and the centuries that immediately followed it? ``They were not miracles,'' says Walters, but an example of ``the divine expressing itself.'' From a theological standpoint, he has concluded that Jesus enabled his followers to use ``senses that you and I had that have been turned off.''

Walters has also looked closely at the Judaic roots of Christianity. Rabbi Steven Fisdel, from Burlingame, Calif., has taught courses on Judaism at Walters's College of Early Christian Studies. The college has a current enrollment of about 100 and holds classes in space donated by local churches.

Rabbi Fisdel says he and Walters share a reverence for original source material. ``Lots of people are looking for new viewpoints,'' he says, ``and the very ancient material tends to sustain that need.''

Walters's means of putting people in touch with Christian origins include his TV show, which is carried by the Trinity Broadcasting Network, a Christian network with more than 50 million viewers.

THE show generates as many as 500 letters a week, Walters says. None give him more satisfaction, he says, than those that say, ``I'm able to think; I'm not afraid to ask any longer.''

He regularly corresponds with viewers and others interested in his work. The books he has privately published include an annotated version of the Didache, an anonymous 2nd-century document outlining the communal life of the early church, and a just-published compilation titled ``Ante-Nicene Christianity.''

Walters has been challenging dogma at least since his teens. ``I was raised by very strict fundamentalists,'' he says. He appreciates the moral teachings instilled by that approach to Christianity but takes issue with the ``naivete'' of biblical literalism. He describes himself now as an ``interdenominational Christian.''

``I'm absolutely convinced that you can't analyze a religion unless you're on the inside,'' Walters says. He contends that a grasp of the history, culture, and writings of the time is what takes you ``inside'' - toward understanding, and presumably reclaiming, the original direction and purpose of Christianity.

Kramer parts company with his old friend on that point. ``It's utterly impossible to stand in the 20th century and assume we can get back to what the early church was thinking and feeling,'' he says. Moreover, who's to say that the cultural-historical evolution of the church wasn't a necessary process, he asks.

Walters, however, despairs about the current state of Christianity. ``We're so bound to written things and not the meaning behind them,'' he says. ``We have microwave Christianity: You pop a doctrine in and it comes out - two minutes - and we have no idea what we've eaten!''

At the same time, he foresees ``a new enlightenment, a whole new renaissance'' as more people dig into the primal meaning of Christianity and apply it in their lives.

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