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 have tried and tried to admire Augustine and to discern in his writings the spirit of Jesus of the Gospels. Perhaps it's his late-classical rhetorical style; perhaps it's the quality of the translations into English. But I can't make it happen. With the exception of some specific selections, he just leaves me cold -- or worse; he makes me recoil in horror.

    And his attitude toward sex, gender, and original sin has done SO. MUCH. HARM for so many centuries.

    The straight line from Augustine to high medieval Catholicism and its doubling down in the counter-Reformation has been a theological, pastoral, and moral disaster, with its neurotic attitude toward sex and its linkage of the theological concept of human sin to the biological processes of human reproduction.

    The other straight line, from Paul to Augustine to Luther, has been equally disastrous, and ultimately led to the outrageously simplistic distortions of American evangelicalism and its formulaic "saved by reciting the sinner's prayer and accepting Jesus into your heart."

    Of course the good bishop could not anticipate these effects. He was trying by his own lights to praise the Triune God. But between the huge pile of radioactive theology assembled by Augustine and, on the other hand, the simplicity of the witness of the women at the tomb, I know where I believe the emphasis should be.

    1. Despite--or maybe because of--growing up Roman Catholic in the ‘50s and ‘60s, I had not known that Augustine was the one who, as Gretchen Pritchard succinctly puts it, linked “the theological concept of human sin to the biological processes of human reproduction.”

      After reading Ms. Pritchard’s comment, I did a little web searching and quickly found this:

      “Augustine’s tortured recognition that involuntary arousal was an inescapable presence—not only in conjugal lovemaking but also in what he calls the ‘very movements which it causes, to our sorrow, even in sleep, and even in the bodies of chaste men’”—shaped his most influential idea, one that transformed the story of Adam and Eve and weighed down the centuries that followed: originale peccatum, original sin.”

      “The archaic story of the naked man and woman, the talking snake, and the magical trees was something of an embarrassment. It was Augustine who rescued it from the decorous oblivion to which it seemed to be heading. He bears principal responsibility for its prominence, including the fact that four in ten Americans today profess to believe in its literal truth.”

      “What a married man and woman who intend to beget a child do together is not evil, Augustine insisted; it is good. ‘But the action is not performed without evil.’ True, sexual intercourse—as Augustine knew from long experience with his mistress and others—is the greatest bodily pleasure. But the surpassing intensity of pleasure is precisely its dangerous allure, its sweet poison: ‘Surely any friend of wisdom and holy joys . . . would prefer, if possible, to beget children without lust.’"


  2. So, do you still vote daily if you completed the predictive final 16 percentage bracket?

  3. While I am arguing for Lim Tim-Oi, I must vote for Enmegahbowh. He is obviously the superior choice.

  4. Whether we "like" Augustine is irrelevant. He is the most significant influence on Christianity after Jesus and Paul and before Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin. He was obviously affected by the Manichaeism of his youth. He makes many Christians uncomfortable. But reading Augustine reminds us that we are "fallen," that we are prone to sin, and that we need redemptive grace to be saved.

  5. Joanna! Just reposting the poem I wrote and posted very late in the day when Joanna won her first bracket:

    The Myrrh Jar

    Of course, it is considered perfume.
 But we had planned it, that long-ago morning,
    for its other use: to take away the smell –
    if not the sting – of death.

    Instead, when I got home, I put it down
    on my dressing-table, in front of the mirror
    next to my hairbrush and washing pitcher and bowl.

    It has been there ever since; since that morning
    when the whole world changed. I suppose
    that might seem odd, perhaps even
    irreverent. It’s not a dainty perfume bottle, after all,
    but a rough clay jar, its contents
    meant for burial preparations.

    Sometimes I catch my husband considering it. He doesn’t
    say anything. His job is stressful, his boss
    bad-tempered and unpredictable – we never talk politics
    or religion. He just looks at the jar, then at me, and then
    looks away, pondering.

    Still, all these years, morning and night, I touch
    a spot of the myrrh to my forehead, and another tiny bit
    just above my lips. Sometimes I put some on my
    temples; sometimes even a dab beneath my dress
    right over my heart.

    People say that myrrh has a bitter scent. But to me
    it is pure,

    Lisa Keppeler 2/28/2023

  6. Most of the comments urging you to vote for Joanna (a truly worthy mhyrrbearer) actually are stronger arguments for Augustine.

    1) Augustine was a mulatto from the backwoods of the province of Africa. We can argue as to whether his societal position was less than that of a noble woman, but if it wasn't, he didn't have much status.

    2) Augustine was on the fast track to become the Solicitor General of the Roman Empire (a very high status position for which he worked tirelessly). He abandoned the chase in its very last stages to become a rural monk in the backwoods of a colonialized "third-world" country.

    3) Augustine was a champion for the place of women. His first "published" works, the four dialogs from Cassiciacum, present his mother, Monica, as the deepest and most profound thinker of the interlocutors. His rule for monastics (one of Benedict's most important sources for his rule) was written at the request of the leader of a women's monastic community (some scholars identify her as Augustine's common law wife). His anti-Pelagian writings were actually a working out of the theology of baptism of the mothers in his church, and he gives them the credit.

    4. Augustine was a continual champion of the laity against the imperial styling of the Western church of his time. His sermon, commemorating his consecration to the episcopate (much against his will, by the way) has words that everyone who aspires to "high office in the church" should memorize:
    "Where I’m terrified by what I am for you, I am given comfort by what I am with you. For you I am a bishop, with you, after all, I am a Christian. The first is the name of an office undertaken, the second a name of grace; that one means danger, this one salvation."

    There are few historical Christians whose witness needs to be heard by the anglican communion more than that of the Berber bishop of Hippo. We need Augustine with the golden halo.

    1. Walter:
      Although I took a course on Augustine and free will at Penn while in Seminary (and was more impressed by his internal logic than by his conclusions) you have brought out several aspects of his thought that I missed before, and that have overcome my early second thoughts about voting for him.

    2. Well said!! Those were the arguments I used. I often have to remind people that Augustine was just a back-water bishop. He did not command anyone to think in any way. Also, his writings are often meditations or reflections not dictates or papal bulls.

      I'm sorry Augustine will lose, but I'm glad to have been spurred to look up some of my favorite passages in Confessions. I remember being gobsmacked at how all over the place his writing was in Confessions. So fascinating. He clambers all over himself to make sense of 'everything.'

      This power of memory is great, very great, my God. It is a vast and infinite profundity. Who has plumbed its bottom? This power is that of my mind and is a natural endowment, but I myself cannot grasp the totality of what I am. Is the mind, then, too restricted to compass itself, so that we have to ask what is that element of itself which it fails to grasp? Surely that cannot be external to itself; it must be within the mind. How then can it fail to grasp it? This question moves me to great astonishment. Amazement grips me. People are moved to wonder by mountain peaks, by vast waves of the sea, by broad waterfalls on rivers, by the all-embracing extent of the ocean, by the revolutions of the stars. But in themselves they are uninterested. (Chadwick)

      You go Gus!!

  7. I appreciate Joanna's willingness to risk her comfort and safety for her beliefs. It's a difficult thing to do. I picked her today even though Augustine's willingness to sit with the incomprehensibility of God from a human standpoint speaks to me too. Sometimes our overconfidence in our own perceptions of God can lead us to dark places.

  8. I always look forward to David Sibley's write ups in Lent Madness. I also enjoyed seeing him on Jeopardy .

  9. I voted for both these people in the first round, so it was difficult to decide who to move forward. Yet, when I re-read all the information I had researched about both, I found myself still amazed that a woman of wealth and privilege would throw her lot in with a small group of what were considered rabble-rousers. Much like Peter and others who dropped their nets to follow Jesus, she and other women did the same. If not for the time period of history, perhaps the women who followed Jesus would have been recognized for their commitment . So with my vote, its time to recognize the women "apostles." Joanna the Myhrrbearer deserves recognition and my vote.

  10. I'm inclined to think that Herod wouldn't have been all that upset at Joanna's rescue of John's head: it wasn't Herod's idea to execute him, and he may have had a sense of relief that someone else showed post mortem compassion for John.

  11. It is kind of ironic that earlier this afternoon I attended a class that was mostly about Augustine and his thoughts on suffering and pain. I surely don't agree with all his ideas but I can appreciate what an influence he had on Christian thought. Therefore, Augustine gets my vote.

    1. Original sin may work as a model, but a model always leaves details out to make it comprehensible size. For me, the original sin model always leaves the Resurrection out.

      OK. So I'm not saying Augustine was a heretic. That prayer of wanting to be saved from something, but not yet, is one we've all prayed. He stands in for all of us working who are working things out. However, I'm not so sure he should have such an exulted place.

  12. I had to vote for Joanna even though mush of her life is legend. There is surely truth in her dedication and diligence in her faith.

  13. I had to go for Joanna but I love the quote about the child filling the hole in the sand. ... ‘Why not? It would be easier than to get into your head the incomprehensible ocean of the Holy Trinity!’”

  14. I only voted for Augustine in the first round as he was the lesser of bad choices. And I did vote for Joanna in that round, so today's choice was pretty simple for me.

  15. But I appreciated David Sibley’s making us aware of Augustine’s understanding of the Incarnation & Trinity.

  16. Today, you might look at these two as examples of how males and females with ADHD express the condition. Men/boys typically act out. Women/girls typically keep it hidden. With some difficulty of thought and behavior, St. Augustine reflects on his behavior, confesses, and is transformed (the child on the beach story confirms it). St. Joanna - without explanation - turns away from luxury and toward marginalized women who follow/serve Jesus...burning bridges, using her own resources, and behaving radically. (historians words) Diagnosis aside, both were "seekers" and both found what they were "seeking".

  17. If we have to consent to our salvation, then we have to do something to be saved. What if it is only that we can _reject_ salvation because we are already saved? And the rejection isn't final, because God continues to call us.

    I'm not a universalist, per se. (Wouldn't it be wonderful if universalism is true, though?) However, it makes more sense if the light switch was turned on by the death and resurrection of Jesus when all creation was put right again--and all we can do is try to shut off.

    Yeah, I don't think Augustine was right.

    So, Joanna the Myrrhbearer received my vote.

  18. I love the Lenten Madness!!!! Thanks for all of the great info you give us!!!!!
    Happy St. Patrick’s Day!!!!

  19. It occurred to me late last night that, if you had the opportunity to ask Joanna to explain the ineffable mystery of the Trinity, this disciple and supporter of Jesus' earthly ministry would say, "The what?"