We expect books, stories, articles and poems to have titles. A title is a kind of invitation to read, and publishers try to help their authors think up catchy titles that will sell their books. Bible readers take it for granted that the books of the Bible have titles too—not catchy, but informative. The title is supposed to tell us what the work is (for example, a Gospel, as the early Christians called their accounts of Jesus' life and teaching, or a letter or sometimes just a book) and often who wrote it (for example, the Gospel of Mark or the letter of Paul to the Romans). The last book of the Bible is known simply as the book of Revelation, or the Revelation of John, or sometimes the Apocalypse, or the Apocalypse of John (apocalypsis being the Greek word for "revelation"). No one expects it to be called "The Late Great Planet Earth" or "God's Great Tomorrow"!
Few Bible readers are aware that most biblical books did not originally have titles at all. They simply began, said what they had to say, and ended. The titles were added in very early manuscripts, but the authors themselves did not bother to attach them. There are a few possible exceptions, depending on how the opening words are interpreted. Some have argued, for example, that "The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ" in Mark 1:1, and "The book of the generation of Jesus Christ" in Matthew 1:1 (KJV) are titles. Revelation is probably the clearest New Testament example of a work that does give itself a title. Its title is not "The Revelation of John," for these words were supplied by later scribes who copied the manuscript. The real title is very long, like some obscure eighteenth-century religious tract. It is emphatically not a catchy title. In fact, it comprises all of the first three verses of chapter 1! If there is a short title, it has to be the simple phrase with which the longer one begins, "the revelation of Jesus Christ."
This revelation has the form of a letter, the longest letter in the New Testament (1:4—22:21). But the title, or heading prefixed to the letter, makes it clear from the start that this is no ordinary letter from a Christian leader to a group of churches. It is a letter from heaven, a prophetic revelation from Almighty God! While the voice that speaks in the letter is John's voice, the voice that speaks in the long title is anonymous. It could be John. But if so, John is distancing himself from his own persona by referring to himself in the third person as his servant John. It could also be an individual Christian or a Christian community that is "publishing" John's long letter after the fact for a wider audience. Quite simply, there is no way to be certain. As far as we know, the voice that speaks in the extended title is not heard again, for the rest of the book (1:4—22:21) stands complete as a letter. It has the customary beginning (1:4-6) and ending (22:21) of early Christian letters, like Paul's or Peter's.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.