Bob's blog – A skeptical lawyer

Biblical inerrancy – Crabtree’s Bludgeon

Posted on July 8, 2019

           A real Joseph Crabtree.



In a previous post, Biblical Inerrancy – Fixed Ideas and Occam’s Razor, I gave my two cents about how belief in biblical inerrancy requires evangelical Christians to explain away hundreds of errors and contradictions in the Bible. Evangelicals must ignore Occam’s razor and instead employ its polar opposite – Crabtree’s Bludgeon.

Crabtree’s Bludgeon

Crabtree’s Bludgeon posits, “No set of mutually inconsistent observations can exist for which some human intellect cannot conceive a coherent explanation, however complicated.” In other words, people can explain away any contradiction.

Reginald Victor Jones, the father of technical intelligence, first described Crabtree’s bludgeon in his 1989 book, Reflections on Intelligence. Jones explained that intelligence officers often confront contradictory evidence obtained through different channels of intelligence. He advised that Occam’s razor provides the best guide for deciding between conflicting evidence. In relation to intelligence gathering, Jones explained Occam’s razor requires that “hypotheses are not to be multiplied without necessity; you should seek the simplest hypothesis that is consistent with the information coming through various channels of intelligence.” He further explained:

If the intelligence officer is so unfortunate as to be obliged to submit his raw information for a committee to mull over, he may be bewildered to find on it individuals who so far from adhering to Occam’s Razor will instead indulge in flights of fancy, and propose complex hypotheses that are consistent enough with reported facts as not to be readily disproved. And he may even find individuals who subconsciously reject Occam’s Razor in favour of what may be termed Crabtree’s Bludgeon: ‘No set of mutually inconsistent[1] observations can exist for which some human intellect cannot conceive a coherent explanation, however complicated.’ In such circumstances, all the intelligence officer can do is to stand by Occam.

Jones named his new logical maxim after Joseph Crabtree, a fictional 18th-century scholar created as a hoax by Jones and some friends. The fact that Jones named Crabtree’s Bludgeon after a hoax indicates that he had a sense of humor, but his point remains valid. People create over-elaborate theories to explain inconsistent facts.

Masters of Crabtree’s Bludgeon

Like Jones’ intelligence officer, proponents of biblical inerrancy face contradictory evidence obtained through different channels of intelligence. The Bible conflicts with scientific facts (e.g. the starlight problem) and common human decency (e.g. slavery). Likewise, the Bible contradicts itself.

Christian apologists have produced a vast literature – both in print and online – attempting to explain these many errors. With no apparent sense of irony, the Evidence Unseen website brags about answering more than a thousand “Bible difficulties,” apologists Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe published The Big Book of Bible Difficulties and Gleason Archer produced an Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. These massive collections of proposed answers implicitly recognize that there are a lot of questions about biblical inerrancy.

I am amazed – though not impressed – by the creativity and single-minded focus apologists demonstrate in their attempts to reconcile the Bible with reality. Outside of partisan politics, I doubt that any group of people has ever employed Crabtree’s Bludgeon to greater effect.


When the Bible gives two different versions of an event, evangelical scholars attempt to harmonize them. This harmonization sometimes requires that the event in question happened two or more times. Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple may be the most striking example of this technique. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus overturned tables and expelled moneychangers at the end of his ministry. In John, Jesus overturned tables and expelled moneychangers at the beginning of passion week. Conservative apologists usually resolve this difficulty by claiming that Jesus cleansed the temple twice.

Evangelical apologists resolve other difficulties by merging two different stories into one composite. Bart Ehrman observes that combining  two or more stories creates a new story that is completely unlike the original stories. For example, consider the death of Judas Iscariot.

The death of Judas

The Mathew 27:3-8 states:

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.

Acts 1:18-20 tells a different story.

Now [Judas] acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood. “For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; and ‘Let another take his position of overseer.’

Prof. Ehrman notes that these two stories differ in at least four ways. Evangelical apologists attempt to resolve these discrepancies.

First. In Matthew, the priests buy the field. In Acts, Judas acquired it, and the quote from Psalms indicates that the property was Judas’ homestead. In response, apologists claim Judas acquired the property because the priests bought it with Judas’ money. Although Judas had abandoned the money and the priests were not acting on his behalf or for his benefit, Judas was supposedly deemed to be the purchaser pursuant to a legal fiction. Scant evidence exists for this legal fiction, and the legal fiction would not make the field Judas’ homestead.

Second. In Matthew, Judas hangs himself. In Acts he falls headlong, bursts open, and spills his intestines on the field. Apologists combine the two stories to claim that Judas hung himself and then his body later fell down and split open – thereby creating an entirely new story.

Third. In Matthew, Judas commits suicide. Acts does not reference a suicide. Apologists see no contradiction due to an omission and contend that critics jump to the conclusion that a partial report is false. In other words, Judas committed suicide, but Acts does not mention it. Once again, apologists create a new story – in which Judas commits suicide and then spills his guts.

Fourth. In Matthew, the place is called the Field of Blood because the priests purchased it with blood money. In Acts, it is called the Field of Blood because Judas spilled his blood on it. I can find no conservative apologist who addresses this issue, but they would probably claim it was called the Field of Blood for two reasons: blood money and Judas’s own blood.

Combining the different stories from Matthew and Acts creates a fifth issue. Nothing in Matthew indicates the Judas hung himself on the Field of Blood. The natural reading of Matthew is that Judas went and hanged himself, and then the priests purchased the Field of Blood. Neither Matthew nor Acts indicates that Judas waited for the priests to purchase a suitable location for his suicide. Think about that. After throwing the money on the floor and heading off to hang himself, Judas had no way of knowing that the priests would later buy a piece of land. Why would he wait for the purchase that he knew nothing about?

But, is this new story credible?

Evangelical apologists fit Jones’ description of people who reject Occam’s razor and turn to Crabtree’s Bludgeon; they propose complex hypotheses that are consistent enough with reported facts as not to be readily disproved. No one can disprove the composite story for Jesus’ death. However, even the most ardent supporters of biblical inerrancy do not claim that the new story is credible. It is enough for them at the resolution of the “Bible difficulty” is possible.

[1] Some writers misquote Jones as referring to “mutually consistent observations,” instead of “mutually inconsistent observations.”