Relevance Theory (RT) is an inferential model of communication and interpretation that diverges significantly from the code model, which is the foundation for most contemporary approaches to biblical interpretation. RT provides a comprehensive theory of communication that shows how authors, readers, texts, and contexts interact in the communication of meaning and, as such, provides a rich model for understanding the interpretive task. Shifting from the code model of communication to an inferential model will naturally entail modifications in our understanding of hermeneutical theory as well as exegetical methodology. While those engaged in biblical translation have entered fully into discussions about the usefulness of RT as a theoretical foundation for their work, biblical scholars are only recently beginning to appreciate the descriptive value of RT.

Code and Inferential Models of Communication.

According to the code model, a communicator pairs her message with a signal or a linguistic code, which is transmitted by gesture or through a verbal or written sign system. The role of the hearer or reader is then to decode the message. Misunderstanding comes when there is noise in the system (such as a distraction) or from a lack of understanding of the code. But if the code is mutually understood and the signal is not distorted through interference, the addressee will comprehend the message. The code model is inherently signal oriented rather than communicator or addressee oriented. This theory of communication accounts for the strong emphasis on lexical study, syntactical and discourse analysis, and intertextual study in contemporary exegetical methodology. Since words contain the meaning communicated, faithful decoding becomes the primary concern as readers seek to comprehend the canonical text.

An inferential model, however, views the sign system as a component in the communication of meaning but regards it as a piece of evidence that the communicator offers when she wishes to convey a message. The meaning of her utterance is not the same as the meaning of her sentence since part of the meaning she intends to communicate must be inferred from a combination of the sign system and context. The speaker or writer’s meaning is a combination of encoded and inferred information. An inferential model of communication focuses on the intentions of the communicator and the inferences made by the addressee, not simply the linguistic code. There exists a gap between utterance meaning and sentence meaning which must be filled by an inferential process that accesses relevant contextual information. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 5:3, Paul says (1), “When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!” Through an inferential process, the reader must assign reference to “they” and “them” in Paul’s utterance. He must also disambiguate terms such as “peace and security,” asking what kind of “peace and security” do “they” have in mind. The reader also must enrich the proposition that “there will be no escape” by asking, “From what will they not escape?” What Paul meant in his utterance consists of more than what he said in the lexical and semantic structures of the sentence. How, then, do we fill the gap between sentence and utterance meaning?

Relevance Theory and Ostensive-Inferential Communication.

Relevance Theory, as developed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson, discusses the character of ostensive-inferential communication, which they define in the following way: “the communicator produces a stimulus which makes it mutually manifest to communicator and audience that the communicator intends, by means of this stimulus, to make manifest or more manifest to the audience a set of assumptions [I]” (1995, p. 63). Communication is ostensive in that the communicator wants her intention to communicate to be recognized. The communication is inferential from the perspective of the hearer or reader in that he must infer from the evidence provided what the speaker or author’s intent was. Sperber and Wilson note that there are two kinds of intention at the heart of communication: the informative and the communicative. The informative intention is “to make manifest or more manifest to the audience a set of assumptions [I]” (1987, p. 58). On the one hand, the informative intention is the communicator’s intention to inform the addressee about a set of assumptions, such as the fact that (1) “They will not escape” from some form of “sudden destruction.” On the other hand, the communicative intention is the desire that the communicator has to make her informative intention known to the hearer or reader. According to Sperber and Wilson, the communicative intention “make(s) it mutually manifest to audience and communicator that the communicator has this informative intention” (1987, p. 61). Recognizing the speaker or writer’s intent to communicate a set of assumptions moves us beyond the mere transfer of information to genuine human communication. According to RT, comprehending both the informative and communicative intention of the speaker or writer is the essence of communication. Humans possess the ability to represent their own thoughts through the linguistic sign system but also metarepresent the thoughts of others and ascribe intentions to them (Carston 2002, pp. 42–47; Green 2010). These abilities make ostensive-inferential communication possible.

Code and Context.

Relevance Theorists recognize the role of the sign system in communication but argue that accessing the appropriate contextual information is essential in order to understand a speaker or writer’s utterance. A word or sentence could mean a wide array of things by simply varying the contexts in which they are communicated. According to RT, the context of an utterance is not all the information available from the discourse in which a sentence is embedded (such as a paragraph, a section of a book, or a book as a whole), the wider literary corpus of a particular author (such as the writing of Paul), nor the wider cultural context shared by communicators and their addressees (such as the history and cultures of the Jewish and wider Greco-Roman worlds). Rather, context is a subset of all the salient or available information to the communicator and the addressee, which is accessed in the communication of an utterance. Context is not a preset and well-defined body of information but, rather, consists of all the information that is relevant for the interpretation of a particular utterance. As such, context is a psychological construct. As Gutt notes, context is only a select portion of the speaker/writer’s and hearer/reader’s “ ‘assumptions about the world’ or cognitive environment. The notion of ‘cognitive environment’ takes into account the various external factors but places emphasis on the information they provide and its mental availability for the interpretation process” (2000, p. 27).

Interpreters of biblical texts commonly invest a considerable amount of effort in understanding the cognitive environment of the biblical authors and their readers and selecting which aspects of that information are relevant for the interpretation of a particular utterance. Accessing the appropriate contextual information is essential for all communication since meaning is not entirely contained within the sign system. Supplying assumptions other than those that the communicator intended can change the meaning of an utterance significantly. When interpreting Genesis 4:1, (2) “Now the man knew his wife,” the reader who understands “knew” (יָדַע) as a merely cognitive process has disambiguated the verb in a way that substantively alters the meaning of the utterance. The necessary contextual information needed to disambiguate “to know” appears in the following clause of the verse, “and she conceived and bore Cain.”

The Principle of Relevance.

The fundamental premises of RT are, first, that every utterance has a variety of possible interpretations, all of which are compatible with the information linguistically encoded. Second, not all of these interpretations are available to a hearer or reader at a particular moment. Third, readers and hearers are able to evaluate possible interpretations, either accepting or rejecting them, by the application of the general principle of relevance (discussed later). Supplying proper assumptions from context does not occur in a haphazard manner. And fourth, hearers or readers will invest processing effort to find the necessary contextual assumptions and, when found, will cease processing. Addressees do not explore all possible interpretations before coming to conclusions regarding the meaning of an utterance.

Within RT, relevance is not something that seems to be important or relevant, as in common usage. Rather, relevance is a technical term defined in relation to modifications of a hearer or reader’s cognitive environment, called cognitive effects, and the processing effort invested to achieve cognitive effects. In other terms, for information to be relevant, it must produce some cognitive benefit in relation to the effort expended to achieve those cognitive effects. RT, therefore, asserts that (a) “The greater the cognitive effects, the greater the relevance” and (b) “The smaller the effort needed to achieve those effects, the greater the relevance” (Wilson and Matsui 1998, p. 16; and Sperber and Wilson 1995, pp. 118–171; 265–266). Wilson and Sperber ask, “When is an input relevant? Intuitively, an input (a sight, a sound, an utterance, a memory) is relevant to an individual when it connects with background information he has available to yield conclusions that matter to him: say, by answering a question he has in mind, improving his knowledge on a certain topic, settling a doubt, confirming a suspicion, or correcting a mistaken impression” (2004, p. 208). When someone communicates through an utterance, the information she presents will interact with assumptions that are manifest to both her and her addressee and will produce cognitive effects by strengthening existing assumptions, contradicting or eliminating existing assumptions, or combining with an existing assumption to yield some contextual implication (Wilson and Matsui 1998, p. 16; Sperber and Wilson 1995, pp. 263–266, 108-137). Information or input is relevant when it produces positive cognitive effects or pay-off for the processing effort invested.

In this search for a context within which to process an utterance, there is a fine balance between the processing effort expended and cognitive effects. If no cognitive effects are immediately available, the addressee will invest greater processing effort in a quest for cognitive effects. The addressee will expect that the speaker or writer is being optimally relevant in accordance with his or her preferences and abilities. This assumption of optimal relevance raises expectations and motivates the addressee to invest a sufficient amount of processing effort. If, in the end, the addressee finds no cognitive effects, then he may return for clarification or simply stop processing, assuming that the utterance was not relevant.

This search for relevance in relation to the assumption that the communicator is being optimally relevant both drives and constrains the interpretive process. Although any utterance could be interpreted in multiple ways, the hearer or reader is only justified in understanding the utterance in accordance with the principle of relevance. In secondary language situations, such as reading the biblical text, which comes from another time and culture, the reader may rightly expect to invest greater processing effort to achieve the kind of cognitive effects the first readers and hearers would have obtained. On the other hand, the principle of relevance predicts that when contemporary readers intuitively interpret a biblical text by drawing upon salient information from their own cognitive environment, they may skew the meaning of the biblical author’s utterance. Those from a materialist culture may interpret John 10:10 as a promise of economic prosperity (3): “I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.” “Abundant life,” in this case, has been disambiguated within the contextual frame of material and economic gain. Therefore, RT not only describes what occurs in successful, but also in unsuccessful communication.

The wedding feast at Cana in Galilee illustrates the processes that RT attempts to define. Jesus and his disciples attended this celebration, and John 2:3 states that (4) “When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ ” The following verse implies that Jesus understood her statement as a petition to do something about the situation, even though his mother did not encode her utterance as a request or petition. The meaning of her utterance, which includes not only what she said but also what she implied, is linguistically underdetermined (although not indeterminate). Jesus understood both her informative and communicative intent. He also combined her statement, “They have no wine,” with existing contextual assumptions about the necessity of having sufficient wine for the whole feast, likely to avoid dishonor, and an implied premise that Jesus is able to remedy the situation. Mary’s statement combines with these existing assumptions and produces cognitive effects, thus achieving relevance for Jesus. There is an “ah-ha” moment and Jesus responds, albeit enigmatically, to her statement which he recognizes as a petition for him to act. The contemporary reader, as the first readers/hearers of this narrative, needs to supply the necessary assumptions as well in order to understand Mary’s utterance as a request. He must supply these from his understanding of Jewish customs surrounding wedding ceremonies, the nature of honor and shame, and the story about the nature of Jesus unfolding in John’s narrative.

The gap between sentence meaning and utterance meaning is filled via a rich inferential process constrained by the principle of relevance. Jesus, as Mary’s first hearer, does not explore the multiple things the sentence, “They have no wine,” could mean but combines it with contextual information manifest to him and Mary in the search for relevance—the greatest cognitive effects for the least processing effort. At this point, the interpretive process stops, and Jesus responds. No amount of lexical or syntactical analysis would have been sufficient for Jesus or any reader of this text to understand the meaning of Mary’s utterance. The meaning communicated in her utterance is a combination of the semantic structures and inferred contextual information. The interpreter must attend to relevant contextual information, whether it is drawn from discourse, the wider corpus of literature, or a vast array of historical and cultural assumptions. The search for relevance constrains this inferential process as the hearer or reader seeks to work out the speaker or writer’s informative and communicative intent.

Explicatures and Implicatures.

According to RT, the speaker or writer’s encoded sentence meaning must be sufficiently enriched with contextual information to yield the meaning of the communicator’s utterance. The information communicated may be classified as either explicatures or implicatures. Indeed, the sum of the implicatures and explicatures constitutes the total of the communicator’s utterance. These are technical terms in RT, as is the word relevance, and should not be confused with explicit and implicit information.

The explicatures of an utterance consist of the information encoded in the sign system and all the information inferentially connected to it through reference assignment, disambiguation, and enrichment. In example (4), Jesus and the reader/hearer of the gospel need to undertake reference assignment in order to understand who “they” are in the statement, “They have no wine.” This information is not directly derived from the discourse but, rather, an understanding of the wedding customs of the time. Does Mary’s utterance mean that the bride and groom have no wine, or are “they” the family hosting the feast? The explicature in this case is the encoded lexeme “they” and the inferred information about who “they” are. Also, as noted earlier in example (1), the reader must disambiguate the lexemes “peace and security” and “destruction.” Is Paul talking about personal or political “peace and security”? And is the “destruction” he refers to something which will occur in the present time, or does it have to do with eternal judgment? Similarly in sentence (4), John comments that “the wine gave out” (ὺστερήσαντος). The lexeme in Greek could mean “to miss out on something,” “to be in need,” “to be lower in status,” “to experience deficiency in something,” or, as here, “to be in short supply” (BADG, p. 1043–1044). Even if the reader recognizes that in this context it means that there is some deficiency in the supply, the question remains whether the wine had run out completely or was in short supply.

The recovery of contextual information is necessary to disambiguate ὺστερήσαντος. The reader or hearer may also have to enrich a sentence to bring it up to its full propositional form. In example (1), the interpreter must supply contextual information to understand what people will not escape from in the clause: “and there will be no escape!” In this case, the preceding clause supplies the information needed to enrich the proposition: “there will be no escape from sudden destruction!” While this information is not encoded in the clause, it is an implied part of the writer’s utterance meaning, or an explicature. The explicatures are developments of the linguistically encoded information. We could say that explicit communication necessarily entails implicit information. Translators of the biblical text often struggle with the question of whether or not to supply this implied information (Gutt 2000).

However, the implicit information of a communicator’s utterance may not be tied to the sign system at all. RT calls such information the implicatures, that is, everything communicated in an utterance that is not an explicature. In example (4), the proposition, “They have no wine,” must be combined with the implicated premises about the shame of running out of wine at a wedding feast and Jesus’s ability to do something about the situation. The implicated conclusion is Mary’s appeal to Jesus, “Get some wine!” or perhaps, “Make some wine!” In common discourse, I may say to a colleague (5), “It’s 3:30” and, at that point, we both arise from our chairs and go to the department meeting. The implicated premise is that on this day at 3:30, there is a department meeting. That information, combined with sentence (5), yields the implicated conclusion, “Let’s go to the meeting” or “We should go to the meeting.” This implicature was strongly communicated in the utterance but was not in any way encoded in the linguistic sign system. The gap between the sentence meaning and utterance meaning is filled by an inferential process constrained by the principle of relevance. When relevance is achieved in both (4) and (5), understanding dawns, and a response follows. These inferential processes occur in all communication at a speed and with an ease that allows them to go largely unnoticed in common discourse. The communication of meaning is a highly inferential process.

Relevance Theory and Contextual Studies.

Relevance Theory shapes the way we understand the process of biblical interpretation. In the first place, RT affirms the necessity of interpreting texts within the framework of the cognitive environments of their authors and first readers/hearers. Context is built into the biblical text’s discourse as an author expects his readers to supply certain contextual information from both his discourse and the encyclopedic information he knows his readers/hearers share with him. RT does not ascribe any hierarchical order to the various aspects of their cognitive environment. The relevant information from their cognitive environment, which constitutes the context, may come from the discourse itself, or it may be derived from Jewish history and culture, or it could come from Greek or Roman history and culture. There is no predisposition toward any particular cultural context over the other.

We must simply inquire as to which aspects of their cognitive environment would allow a particular utterance to achieve relevance. On the one hand, knowledge of Jewish Passover customs would be important in supplying necessary contextual assumptions when interpreting (6): “While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body’” (Matt 26:26). On the other hand, understanding Greek and Roman banqueting customs is essential if the interpreter is to supply the appropriate contextual information to understand Paul’s utterance regarding the Corinthian practice of eating the Lord’s supper (7): “For when the times comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (1 Cor 11:21). Interpreters who focus exclusively on discourse, or the Jewish world, or the Greco-Roman world may not be able to supply the essential inferred information to interpret an author’s utterance. Since what is communicated by an author consists of both explicatures and implicatures, lexical and grammatical studies are inadequate in themselves for understanding the message communicated. While most contemporary interpreters acknowledge the importance of such contextual information for interpretation, RT offers a robust model of communication which sets parameters for interpretation within common cognitive processes and explains why such contextual study is a central and not secondary part of the interpretive task.

Relevance Theory and Lexical Studies.

Relevance Theory also suggests that when interpreting the lexemes within an utterance, primary attention needs to be on the concepts the code suggests. Current studies in RT have moved from discussing lexical semantics to lexical pragmatics. Wilson (2003, pp. 273–274) comments that “The goal of lexical semantics is to investigate the relations between words and the concepts they encode and the goal of lexical pragmatics is to account for the fact that the concept communicated by use of a word often differs from the concept encoded.” According to RT, the encyclopedic entry of a concept will vary between discourses and is, therefore, an ad hoc construction. The concept may broaden, such as the statement (8): “His face is square.” The face will not be perfectly SQUARE but only approximately to the eye, so the broadened concept here is SQUARE*. Concept narrowing also occurs, as in utterance (9): “All doctors drink.” The concept DRINK has been narrowed to drinking of a particular kind, that being alcohol consumption. This yields the ad hoc concept DRINK*.

The encyclopedic entry of the concept LORD (ὸκύριος) must be disambiguated in every utterance where it occurs. In Matt 20:8 and 24:50, the ὸκύριος is the “owner” of the vineyard or slaves, while in Mark 12:29 it is a divine title. But even more dynamic contextual forces are in play. The concept LORD attached to ὸκύριος in the confession (10): “Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2:11) combines with an intertextual echo of Isa 45:23, which implies Jesus Christ’s divine authority, yielding the ad hoc concept LORD*. Moreover, LORD* stands as a counterpoint to imperial claims regarding Caesar’s lordship, a salient piece of contextual information available to those living in the Roman colony of Philippi. But the confession (10) is also an affirmation that Christ’s lordship is that of one who humbled himself through incarnation and death (Phil 2:6–11). The concept LORD has become the ad hoc concept LORD* by this unique combination of contextual information drawn from the discourse, the canon (Isa 45:23), and the cultural understanding about imperial claims known to Paul and his readers in Philippi. Interpreting lexemes entails more than disambiguating various translation glosses for ὆κύριος found in a lexicon. The process includes paying attention to the pragmatic forces at play in the construction of these ad hoc concepts. In utterance interpretation, the meaning of words is not simply accessed and disambiguated but rather modified and constructed in discourse. For this reason, RT suggests that the emphasis in lexical studies should not be upon encoded concepts but, rather, on pragmatically inferred concepts. Contextual information, that which supplies the necessary assumptions in the process of interpretation, combines with the lexical information in the formation of ad hoc concepts. Available information is explored and received or rejected on the basis of the cognitive principle of relevance.

Relevance Theory and Discourse.

Relevance Theory also has implications for the way we understand how speakers and authors construct coherent discourses (Blass 1990; Unger 2006). The grammatical structures of a sentence are not always an indication of how a sentence coheres together. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 4:9–12, Paul exhorts the Thessalonian believers to love one another and concludes with the exhortation (11): “But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your own hands, as we directed you.” The command to love “more and more” does not seem to cohere with the following directive to live a quiet life, to mind one’s own affairs, and to labor with one’s hands. Contextual information is needed to understand the coherence in Paul’s command, which we assume is optimally relevant. If interpreted within the conceptual frame of ancient practices and customs surrounding patron/client relationships, both the call to love and the need for labor and a quiet life, unlike that of dependent clients, cohere together (Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians [Grand Rapids Mich., 2002], pp. 202–213). Understanding grammatical structures is only one step in the process of utterance interpretation (see, for example, Mary’s petition stated as a declaration in [4]). The same holds true for our comprehension of discourse and genre.

Relevance Theory provides a thick description of the inferential processes inherent in all communication. Exploration of RT for biblical interpretation will help explain many practices current among biblical interpreters and provides a framework to guide the interpretive task.


Note from the Author: In conformity with general practice in literature on Relevance Theory (RT), this article uses “she” for communicators and “he” for addressees in general examples with the exception of instances where the male biblical author is the communicator. RT literature also tends to number examples—(1), (2), and so on—for sake of ease in referring to them, and this article has followed that practice as well.


  • Blakemore, Diane. Understanding Utterances. An Introduction to Pragmatics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992. An accessible introduction to RT written as a college text.
  • Blass, Regina. Relevance Relations in Discourse. A Study with Special Reference to Sissala. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Using RT, Blass presents a cogent argument for understanding the construction of discourse from a cognitive rather than a strictly linguistic point of view.
  • Carston, Robyn. Thoughts and Utterances: The Pragmatics of Explicit Communication. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002. Explores the pragmatics/semantics distinction, with emphasis on the pragmatic dimension of explicit communication. An essential introduction to ad hoc concept formation as well.
  • Green, Gene L. “Lexical Pragmatics and Biblical Interpretation.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50 (2007): 799–812. This essay introduces a Relevance Theory approach to lexical studies.
  • Green, Gene L. “Lexical Pragmatics and the Lexicon.” Bulletin for Biblical Research (Submitted, forthcoming, 2012). This essay explores how RT informs lexical design as well as the use of lexicons. It compares RT perspectives with current studies in cognitive psychology and lexicography.
  • Green, Gene L. “Relevance Theory and Biblical Interpretation.” In The Linguist as Pedagogue. Trends in the Teaching and Linguistic Analysis of the New Testament, edited by Stanley E. Porter and Matthew Brook O’Donnell, 217–240. New Testament Monographs. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009. A short introduction to RT in relation to biblical interpretation.
  • Green, Gene L “Relevance Theory and Theological Interpretation: Thoughts on Metarepresentation.” Journal of Theological Interpretation. 4 (2010): 75–90. An application of RT to the subject of theological interpretation, with special attention to the human faculty of metarepresentation.
  • Gutt, Ernst-August. Translation and Relevance. Cognition and Context. 2d ed. Manchester and Boston: St. Jerome, 2000. The first robust discussion of RT in relation to Bible translation. Not all who embrace RT as a theory to guide the translation process agree with Gutt’s conclusions.
  • Hill, Harriet S. The Bible at Cultural Crossroads: From Translation to Communication. Manchester and Boston: St. Jerome Publishing, 2006. An application of RT to biblical studies and translation theory, with special attention to the role of contextual information in interpretation.
  • Hill, Harriet, Ernst-August Gutt, Margaret Hill, Christoph Unger, and Rick Floyd. Bible Translation Basics: Communicating Scripture in a Relevant Way. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International, 2011. A textbook for Bible translators based on RT.
  • Pattemore, Stephen W. S. The People of God in the Apocalypse: Discourse, Structure, and Exegesis. SNTSMS 128. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. An application of RT to the study of the book of Revelation.
  • Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance. Communication and Cognition. 2d ed. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995. The foundational work on RT by those who developed the theory from Gricean pragmatics.
  • Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. “Précis of Relevance: Communication and Cognition.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 10 (1987): 697–754. A brief introduction to RT by the founders of the theory. See also Wilson and Sperber (2004).
  • Unger, Christoph. Genre, Relevance and Global Coherence. The Pragmatics of Discourse Type. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2006. Using RT, Unger explores how genre considerations shape our understanding of coherence in discourse. (accessed December 24, 2011) A comprehensive and up-to-date bibliography of literature on RT.
  • Wilson, Deirdre. “Relevance and Lexical Pragmatics.” UCL Working Papers in Linguistics 16 (2004): 343–360. Wilson presents a new perspective on word meaning in this introduction to lexical pragmatics which moves beyond traditional studies in lexical semantics.
  • Wilson, Deirdre, and Dan Sperber. “Relevance theory.” In Handbook of Pragmatics, edited by Laurence R. Horn and Gregory L. Ward, 607–632 Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. One of the basic introductions to RT by the founders of the theory.
  • Wilson, Deirdre, and Tomoko Matsui. “Recent approaches to bridging: Truth, coherence, relevance.” UCL Working Papers in Linguistics 10 (1998): 173–200. An introduction to coherence in discourse from the perspective of RT.
  • Yus, Francisco. Relevance Theory Online Bibliographic Service.

Gene L. Green