Augustine of Hippo v. Joanna the Myrrhbearer

Welcome to the Saintly Sixteen! We have now cut the field of 32 saints in half. 16 remain and one of these inspiring souls will eventually be crowned with the 2023 Golden Halo. We kick things off with Augustine of Hippo facing Joanna the Myrrhbearer, with the first spot in the Elate Eight at stake.

In this round, we move from basic biographical data to Quirks & Quotes. You'll learn some unusual facts or even legends about the remaining saints, along with quotes either by or about the holy ones in question.

And if you'd like to fill out a bracket online to see how you'll fare the rest of the way, click here.

Yesterday, Martin de Porres easily grabbed the last spot in the Saintly Sixteen by cruising past Maximus the Confessor 78% to 22%.

Vote now!

Augustine of Hippo

“Oh Lord, give me chastity and continence, but do not give it yet.” Augustine, famed for his years of indissolute living, knew how to offer a prayer – in this case, one famously recounted in his Confessions, his famed memoir of his conversion to Christianity. Confessions is, in a sense, the first Christian autobiography ever written, the story of the stirring of Augustine’s soul toward God. He famously opens that work by saying “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”

Apart from Confessions, Augustine was well known for his many sermons. Among your author’s favorites is his exposition on the Incarnation in a Christmas Day Sermon: “What greater grace could have shone upon us from God, than that having God’s only begotten Son God should make him a Son of man, and thus in exchange make the Son of man into the Son of God? Look for merit there, look for a cause, look for justice; and see whether you can find anything but grace.” Augustine was a firm believer in grace; it animated his spirit and his theology; he knew that his life had been changed and transformed by the unmerited favor of God. Augustine also knew the importance of opening ourselves to God’s purposes: “God who created us with our help,” he wrote, “will not save us without our consent.”

In his many writings, Augustine also was a distinguished systematic theologian. In De Trinitate (On the Holy Trinity), he spoke of the persons of the Trinity as mediated through love: “When I, who conduct this inquiry, love something, then three things are found: I, what I love, and the love itself… There are, therefore three things: the lover, the beloved, and the love.” Augustine’s analogy has become a favorite analogy in seeking to understand the nature of our Triune God.

Yet of all the stories and writings of Augustine, it is perhaps an apocryphal story, once recounted by Louis-Victor-Emile Bougaud, that sums up Augustine’s unending thirst to know God: “St. Augustine occupied himself with several religious works, and among others, a Treatise on the Trinity. One day, as he was walking up and down the shore, meditating on this mystery with his mother, they saw a little child, who, having dug a tiny hole in the sand, was filling it with sea-water out of a cockle-shell. Augustine, smiling, asked him whether he thought to empty the whole ocean into it? The child replied, ‘Why not? It would be easier than to get into your head the incomprehensible ocean of the Holy Trinity!’”

Yet write and search Augustine did; our faith is richer for his inquiry.

David Sibley

Joanna the Myrrhbearer

Joanna the Myrrhbearer was a woman of means — means, the Gospel of Luke says, she used to help support Jesus’ earthly ministry as she traveled with him, the Twelve and several other women “who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases.”

That same passage identifies Joanna’s husband as Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household. There are a handful of Herods in the Bible. This is the Herod who imprisoned and beheaded Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist.


The Gospels tell us that John’s body was then retrieved by his followers.

Legend tells us that his head was tossed in an unclean place and it was Joanna who chased it down and gave it an honorable burial on the Mount of Olives — on Herod’s estate, no less.

Beyond the quirky story, Joanna’s position in Herod’s court tells us a lot about what she may have given up to follow Jesus and the role she may have played in the early church.

She would have lived in the sparkling, lakeside city of Tiberius, attending dinner parties, enjoying the nearby baths and hot springs and mingling at Herod’s palace, write historians Joan Taylor and Helen Bond in their 2022 book “Women Remembered: Jesus’ Female Disciples.”

She would have had more wealth, connections and status than most of the women – or men, for that matter – who traveled with Jesus, they write.

She also would have had more to lose.

Nothing tells us what prompted Joanna to leave her life of luxury behind to follow Jesus to the margins and, later, to the empty tomb.

Nothing tells us how her discipleship or head retrieval went over with Herod or Chuza either.

Joanna herself is silent on these things, though two recent TV series have given her a voice: “Killing Jesus” and “A.D.: The Bible Continues.”

Scholars have this to say about her:

“All indications are that the women had exactly the same relationship with Jesus as the twelve male envoys, that they had also been with Jesus from his earliest ministry and that they would play an equal part in proclaiming the kingdom of God. All that sets them apart is the fact that they provided for/ministered to the group from their own resources,” write Taylor and Bond.

“Throwing in her lot with Jesus was a radical conversion to the poor, but it must have been the nondiscriminating acceptance with which the community of Jesus’ disciples welcomed all who  joined them, even tax collectors, that gave (Joanna) the confidence to risk her reputation among her peers, burning her bridges behind her, in order to identify herself as fully as possible with Jesus and his movement,” writes Richard Bauckam.

— Emily McFarlan Miller


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74 comments on “Augustine of Hippo v. Joanna the Myrrhbearer”

  1. I'd expect Joanna to win this round -- go Joanna! (especially given the antipathy shown to Augustine in Round One)

    1. St. Augustine may feel upset
      That Joanna has proved the right bet;
      But a lot of folks in-
      To original sin
      Clearly voted to tell him “Not yet!”

  2. I am reading History of Christianity by Paul Johnson, and it sheds some light on some of St. Augustine's arbitrarial decisions on scripture and theology, and how he modified doctrine as he saw fit. Not really one of my favorite people at all. Go Joanna!
    Perhaps someone better qualified than me on this subject can comment?

  3. Augustine was one of the greatest theologians of the early western church. But he should have learned Greek, for had he done so,he would not have erred so late in his life in such a way to so negatively impact the Church. Joanna, who likely could not read or write instead quietly served with justice, giving generously. It's time we honored these faithful and fearless women who followed Jesus.

  4. I don't have antipathy toward Augustine (well, not much anyway), and he was a great theologian. But I voted for the faithful woman who gave up so much to follow Jesus. To me, she stands for the long line of faithful women, unknown and unsung, who kept Christian faith alive through the centuries. We owe them so much.

  5. Augustine contributed my favorite description of the Triune God, and now these centuries later, it is still the best.Thinking of the lover, the beloved, and the love enlivens the concept and makes it real,part of life, and not some gloss in a dull sermon on Trinity Sunday. We are more than our worst actions and Comments.

    1. I may be crazy and I know I am am crazy for St. Augustine! I am attracted to the ‘bad boys’. For me they are more fun and more challenging. I am rather a prude and those ‘bad boys’ offer me a vicarious thrill. I I have read the story of SA walking on the beach. I think it is a fabulous story and puts SA in his place! SA is so human and yet he reaches a place within his soul… possibly where he found the Holy Spirit that had remained silent ; until SA surrendered to God’s will…. Thy will be done. In addition, I collect quotes and SA’s quips ring true for me. It is not important to me if he wins or loses, his life and messages hold me captive.

      God bless all of God’s sainted children!

  6. Augustine and Joanna Among the Saintly Sixteen
    Sung to tune of Nyland-- By all your saints still striving (Hymnal #232)

    From thirty-two who started, now half have gone their way.
    But still the saintly sixteen remain to see the day
    when one will be triumphant to shine with halo gold.
    Yet, all still glow with honor, all thirty-two of old.

    We sing now of Augustine, who wrote: "Who sings prays twice."
    And we pray for Joanna, who bought the myrrh and spice.
    Augustine taught that in God our souls alone find rest
    for only through God's grace will our souls be richly blessed.

    Joanna heard the angels who said: "Christ now was raised."
    And with the other women her heart was filled with praise.
    For they saw in the garden where Christ that day did rise.
    And rushed to tell the others with awe their great surprise.

    With them, we praise the Creator and worship God the Son
    and sing to God the Spirit, eternal Three in One.
    One saint may be exalted to wear the golden crown.
    Yet, they will sing: "All glory and praise to God alone."

  7. In thankfulness for the women who quietly and competently enable the ministry of others, my vote goes to Joanna.

  8. Oooh.

    I voted off my Bracket on this one.

    So compelling, this peek into the story of Joanna the Myrrhbearer.

  9. The Just War theory has been used as permission for too much human tragedy.

    Let’s go, Joanna.

  10. I am voting for Joanna the Myrrhbearer in honor of the women who followed Jesus and supported his ministry, yet were not given the distinction of being named among the "12 disciples" and who, up until recently, were largely erased from history. I was over 40, in Sevilla during Holy Week, and following pasos all night -- displaced from my own language, routine, and country -- before I truly realized that it was Mary Magdalene who first saw the risen Christ. Yet instead of being elevated, she was recast as a prostitute and pushed to the side of the story. So here's to Joanna, who knew, walked alongside, supported, and followed Jesus -- and all the other nameless and misnamed women like her. On a personal note, her being called "the Myrrhbearer" and the story about burying John the Baptist and of her bringing myrrh to Jesus's tomb speaks to me of all the unacknowledged caregiving women do. I took care of my mom at the end of her life, and the last few months were round the clock. While men and women both do this work, statistically it predominantly falls on women's shoulders. All our home health & hospice nurses were women; we saw them as angels. So that's another reason I want to honor Joanna -- and all the myrrh-bearing women who tend the sick, the aged, the dying, and in cleaning up the body afterwards, honor the person who has passed.

    1. Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute? I thought that statement had been proven to be incorrect… hmmm

      Much peace,
      Suzanne Crawford

      1. No she was not, which was my point. By "recast as a prostitute" I meant that her story had been rewritten to diminish her witness.

    2. Because of your writing I changed my mind on who to vote for. I have been at the birth and beginning of many lives, and then at the end where I can “take them to that door through which only they can walk.” Even in our own families we are often forgotten for the service we provide through love and compassion for those we love.

  11. Let's see,it's between a man who didn't have a very high opinion of women, and a woman who gave up everything to follow Jesus. No contest! Joanna it is

  12. I have never "read" Augustine, but almost all of the quotes from him I have read are exquisite...that guy could write. And yet, he cast such a pall over the church with his theory of original sin. I try to take solace in the gems. His explanation of the Trinity is profound and one I can get my head around more than other explanations.Yet, I still hold a grudge for how Augustine's influence has cast a long shadow on accepting the gift of sexuality.
    Joanna, was THERE, as a previous comment expressed. And, more than any time in my life, being a woman in our society feels more and more dangerous. I appreciate the risks Joanna must have taken.

  13. I voted for Joanna because she represents all the unnamed or barely named women who helped create Christianity from the time of Jesus onward. Their contribution has been suppressed, but if we deconstruct the texts, both canonical and not, there they are.

  14. Wonderful stories about both saints today! Thank you, David and Emily! I would love to meet that precocious boy on the beach who understood the Trinity perhaps better than Augustine. I also love the picture of Joanna living "in the sparkling, lakeside city of Tiberius, attending dinner parties, enjoying the nearby baths and hot springs and mingling at Herod’s palace." Sounds a bit like the Great Gatsby. I will vote for Joanna for her closeness to Jesus and for Women's History Month.

  15. Read about half of Augustine & knew I was going to vote for Joanna! An independent thinking woman who chose to change her lifestyle & was faithful beyond the cross, sacrificial giving for the common good.
    Let’s go with the lady to the Golden Halo !

  16. I'm going for theology over legends. Much of what we suppose if Joanna is supposition. But we know definitely that Augustine wrote down the arguments and thoughts that root our faith

    1. What we know about Joanna is no more supposition than what we know about Jesus. We know about both from the gospel! How do you discount one but accept the other??

    2. I completely agree. I found the description of Joanna too conjectural by half.

      But I'll forever be grateful for Augustine's beautiful writings, especially the Confessions.

      1. I think it's unfortunate that so little was written about women that we need to rely on supposition. I'm with those who are voting for Joanna on behalf of all the women who contributed but were mentioned briefly if at all.

  17. "Look for merit there, look for a cause, look for justice; and see whether you can find anything but grace.”
    St Augustine's is a voice that speaks directly to the church I've experienced all too often over the years where -- a cause.... justice.... personal merit ....(all good things in themselves) take over from grace.. and Jesus... as if THEY were the primary elements of the faith.
    Thank you Augustine for keeping our eyes on the core, that enables the rest.

  18. The monk Augustine of Hippo in “Homilies on the First Epistle of John”, 416 A.D. wrote: “Make thyself a temple for God within time. For the temple of God is holy, which temple are ye. Would thou pray in a temple? Pray in thyself. But be thou first a temple of God. For He in His temple heareth him that prays."
    (Note: not to be confused with a different monk named Augustine, who brought the Bible and Christianity to England more than 1300 years ago). 

  19. I don't believe that Augustine's Confessions was the first Christian autobiography...I believe that honor would go to the martyr Perpetua, a woman no less, who wrote about her life, conversion, and preparing to die (in her diary named "The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity") along with several companions. She was put to death in Carthage around 203.

  20. I had to think awhile before setting down my thoughts. Whom to vote for? and how to account for that vote? Something troubles me about the account of love Augustine gives: the lover, the object of love, and the "love" itself. It is too "neat." Where is the love the "other" returns? where is the response? Without a response, a return of love, there is no love. "Love" becomes an abstraction; it requires another to love BACK to activate that love. If a gift is not acknowledged, there is no "gift"; there is only a gesture and a "thing" given away. So I cannot accept that description of "love" as an accurate metaphor for the trinity. The so-called "beloved" is inessential to the equation and can be replaced with another, whether a new mistress, a more suitable wife, a better paying job, or God. Augustine's thinking maps too easily onto the mechanism of empire. Whereas Joanna's story is about the sense of "touch": touching a body newly removed from a gibbet, touching the head of a murdered prophet, giving small final acts of grace. Having carefully laid down a lake of pigment dissolved in eggyolk and vinegar in the mouth of a tomb on an icon, I cannot walk away from the sense of touch, which is how that love "object" returns the gift.

    1. Interesting comment, and I won't say you are wrong, but I have always considered the love in Augustine's metaphor to be shared by the lover and the beloved -- in fact I remember preaching this on a Trinity Sunday early in my ministry -- more than 50 years ago.

    2. But Celia, God loves US, whether or not we return His Love. A daughter of unbelievers, I have to hope God loves my parents as much as She loves me, though they don’t return that love, or all is lost. Is God’s love not love, if it is not returned?

  21. We read in the bio that Augustine was famed for his years of "indissolute living." I always imagined that his early years were characterized by "dissolute" living. The "indissolute living" must have characterized his later living, after his prayer for chastity and continence was finally answered!

  22. On the first round of Lent Madness, I voted for Augustine. This time I'm going for Joanna, for her courage and devotion.