The first priests were probably magicians. And, they were also the first scientists. Tribal shamans claimed supernatural powers, to help their chiefs control the people and enhance their own power. To maintain credibility, these claims were buttressed by marvelous feats. So we can imagine that they, like magicians of today, incorporated a good deal of natural science to fool their unsophisticated audience.
Imagine an ancient priest discovering a bit of black powder that, when tossed in a fire, explodes in a flash of light. Would he rush off a paper to the Neanderthal Review about this new discovery? Or would he secretly incorporate the discovery into some ceremony, saving it for a strategic time when rebellion was brewing or when warriors needed the extra courage that comes with the assurance that the power of the universe is on your side?
The Book of Daniel tells about the Temple of Bel (or Baal, or Marduk) in Babylon, during the occupation by the Persian king Cyrus. The priests of Bel insisted that, each night, a great feast be laid before the feet of Bel's idol in the temple - or else Cyrus would face dire consequences. The temple was sealed, and as proof of the reality of Bel, the next morning all the food would be gone.
This was also the time of the exile of the Jews in Babylon, and their own priest, Daniel, knew a trick or two himself. So he surreptitiously sprinkled a fine dust of ashes on the floor of the temple, just before it was sealed for the night. The next morning, footprints revealed the trodden paths between the idol and secret openings in the temple walls, through which the priests removed the food each night for a feast at the expense of King Cyrus. Needless to say, that was the end of that generation of priests of Bel.
In the first century, Pliny the Elder wrote about a sect of Jews who practiced magic. Moses was probably their greatest magician. Moses and Aaron had gained fame by tricks performed for the Pharaoh. The staff that became a snake when Aaron cast it on the ground was probably a known species of Egyptian cobra that can be made stiff and motionless by pressure in back of the head. The trick has been repeated by modern Egyptian wizards.
After being ejected from Egypt, perhaps as the result of his deceits, Moses called upon miracle after miracle to keep the people together during their wanderings in the desert. When he entered the Tabernacle, a tent that was pitched each night outside camp for Moses to use to speak with God, smoke and sparks would greet his entry. Black powder again?
Closer to our age, we can examine the known historical facts about the origins of modern religions. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, the fastest-growing religion in America, started in New York state as a "necromancer" and treasure hunter. He made a living using a divining rod and "seer stone" to search for buried Indian treasures, Spanish gold, and silver mines that rumors said could be found deep underground. He was once convicted of being an "impostor." He apparently had little success at his little business - until he discovered the Book of Mormon.
A century ago, Madame Helena Blavatzky, the founder of Theosophy, was discovered using various deceptions for her claimed "miracles." This did not mark the end of theosophy. Believers of all faiths are notoriously blind to alternate explanations for the wondrous events associated with their prophets.
Other religious leaders, from Saint Paul and Mohammed to Ellen G. White had visions very suggestive of epileptic attack. Hippocrates (c. 460-370 B.C.E.) had called epilepsy the "sacred disease," while recognizing it for what it is - a brain disorder.
Which brings me to the most influential religions figure in history, Jesus. No one even knows if Jesus really existed, since the New Testament is our only near-contemporary source, and it is filled with contradictions - besides being a far-from-objective source. Reliable histories of that period say that magic and superstition where widespread, and charlatans preyed on the fears of ignorant people.
The Bible reports that Jesus was accused of practicing magic, and that his following resulted from his ability to perform miracles. The second century Roman philosopher Celus is quoted in the writings of the early Christian apologist Origen as saying that Jesus learned the arts of magic on Egypt, and then returned to his own country with these acquired skills.
We will probably never know. But applying law of parsimony, which demands that rational people assume the simplest hypothesis in explaining events, it seems very likely that Jesus, if he exited, was a talented magician.
Most of this essay is based on "The Transcendental Temptation" by Paul Kurtz (Prometheus Books, 1986). I have touched on some of the points in "Physics and Psychics (Prometheus Books, 1990). Also see "Secrets of Magic" by Walter Brown Gibson (Grosset & Dunlap, 1967).