Publication Date

Spring 2012

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




John Bernhardt


cultural diffusion, Gandhara, GIS, monasticism, Pachomius, vinaya

Subject Areas

Ancient history; Comparative religion; Geography


At both ends of the Eurasian continent, cenobitic monasticism took root and flourished in the fourth century. This parallel development at roughly the same time in regions so different and distant from each other as Egypt and China lends itself to an interesting comparison and a large question. Is this a case of cultural diffusion, a borrowing of ideas and attitudes and perhaps even monastic rules and practices from India, which lies midway between the two? Is it instead a case of convergent evolution?

Monastic rules and behaviors, the archaeology of monasteries, and the functions of early monasteries are explored to determine whether Buddhist and Christian monasteries were comparable institutions. Then early monasteries in both traditions are mapped across space and time, using Geographic Information System software. The database includes 257 representative monasteries founded from about 500 B.C.E. to 574 C.E. The results of this study are complex and ambiguous. The first Christian monasteries were established along a trade route from India to Alexandria, and the West had knowledge of Buddhist monastic practices and institutions before the establishment of Christian monasteries, arguments for the possibility of cultural diffusion. However, there is no documentary proof that the founding Christian monks knew of Indian monasticism. There were Western precedents for Christian monasteries, such as the Therapeutae of Lower Egypt and Neoplatonic and Gnostic groups, so parallel evolution might also explain the phenomenon.