Handling money is such a commonplace event in most of our lives that we probably hardly stop to notice it. Only rarely might we have occasion to wonder whether the money was real or counterfeit. Nevertheless, the issue of counterfeiting is a serious one, forcing governments to invest heavily in measures to ensure that money is as hard to fake as possible, even as criminals become ever more adept at doing so.
The problem goes back a long way. During the American Revolution, the British government flooded America with counterfeit continental dollars in order to destabilize the currency. Similarly, in 1942 the Nazis established a plan (Operation Bernhard) to collapse the British economy by flooding it with counterfeit money. Despite the high-quality counterfeits produced by the forced Jewish labor, the plan was never enacted as the operation was turned over to the SS, who laundered the money to pay for German spies and strategic imports. A similar plan targeted US currency, but the war ended the day full production of the counterfeit bills was scheduled to begin.
Unsurprisingly, the history of counterfeiting goes back a lot further. In 2010 on the south coast of England, an enthusiast using a metal detector found what appeared to be a fake silver denarius forged in antiquity. The ancient forger had apparently intended to pass it off as one of the commemorative coins struck to honor Octavian’s victory against Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Having forged the piece a few years after the battle, the counterfeiter made serious errors. First, he depicted the wrong emperor. Second, he misspelled Egypt. Third, the crocodile depicted on one side is facing the wrong direction. The forger also made the mistake of minting the coin in solid silver, negating the reason for forging a coin in the first place. Ironically, experts at the British Museum valued the coin at £3,000 (US$3,800), considerably more than the £100 (US$160) that is usually paid for the genuine equivalent, which is a fairly common coin.
Shortly after his victory at Actium, Octavian, the adopted nephew of Julius Caesar, would become Caesar Augustus, son of “the Divine Julius” (Divus Iulius), who had been declared a god following his assassination by Brutus on the Ides of March. A generation later, when asked by the plotting Pharisees whether or not it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Rome, Jesus told His questioners to bring Him a penny (denarius), and then asked them whose image and inscription were on it. When they answered that it was Caesar’s, He replied, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:15–21).
Leading historian Adrian Goldsworthy considers that “given the amount of currency produced during Augustus’ long life, it is more than likely that the coin in question showed his portrait rather than the Emperor Tiberius” (Augustus: First Emperor of Rome). Nevertheless, Caesar’s image was widespread in the Roman world. Goldsworthy notes, for example, that “more images of Augustus survive from the ancient world than those of any other Roman emperor—or indeed any other human being.”
Regardless of whether the image and inscription on the coin referred to Augustus or to his successor Tiberius, both Caesars were proclaimed to be sons of a god. Coins depicting the young Caesar Augustus bear the inscription “Imperator Caesar, son of the god [Julius], triumvir to restore the Republic.” As the high priest of the Roman pantheon of pagan gods, Caesar Augustus also assumed the title of pontifex maximus in 12 BCE, a title that Goldsworthy tells us was “never again held by anyone who was not an emperor, until Rome had fallen and the pope took the title.”
However, the denarius of Emperor Tiberius, commonly referred to as the Tribute Penny, bore a similar inscription; Tiberius, it declared, was the son of the god Augustus. The coin read, “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.”
Ironically, the resurgence of the imperial cult of ancient Rome—promoting what were essentially false messiahs—had stirred to life again only decades before Jesus Christ, the real Son of God, would be born in the flesh to bring true salvation. Meanwhile Augustus—a man who suffered poor health throughout his life and who, in middle age, wore a broad-rimmed floppy hat to protect his extremely sensitive skin—was in no sense divine.
When Christ advocated peaceful adherence to the prevailing authorities and their tax regime, it was not yet time for Him to demonstrate that He is the true Son of God. The question is, are we able to spot a counterfeit when we see one?