Spotting the Counterfeits


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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?

D
ANIEL TOMPSETT

 

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Tags: false messiahs, religion and the bible, religion and politics

The Great Helmsman's Failed Utopian Vision

RTR2O9XW Reuters Image 75aNew documentary evidence revises what was known about Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” (1958-62). His drive to surpass Britain in industrial and agricultural output within 15 years meant mobilizing millions of peasants and housing them in communes. They moved billions of cubic meters of earth by hand in ill-advised water conservation schemes that ultimately failed. They melted down metal of all kinds in backyard furnaces in an effort to boost steel output, but produced mostly useless pig iron. Ever-higher grain quotas were demanded for export. All of this was done at great individual cost, only to bring on the ravages of possibly the worst famine in human history.

Mao’s Great Famine (2010) by historian Frank Dikötter, chronicles the ghastly four-year period that resulted in the peacetime death of millions. The word “famine” disguises the brutality of the catastrophe, for many were deliberately deprived of food and rest. The revised estimate of those lost is more than 45 million -- a number based solidly on Chinese sources.

Mao was not able to bring about the progress he proposed. Nor did he care about the human suffering he was engendering. According to Dikötter, “At a secret meeting in the Jinjiang Hotel in Shanghai dated March 25, 1959, Mao specifically ordered the party to procure up to one third of all the grain, much more than had ever been the case. At the meeting he announced that ‘When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.’”

Like so many other false messiahs throughout history, Mao did not deliver on his version of Utopia and destroyed untold lives in the process.

David Hulme

Tags: conflict, false messiahs, mao zedong, china, great leap forward, cultural revolution, famine, frank dikotter