While reading Maccabees earlier today, I came across 1 Macc 2.42:
τότε συνήχθησαν πρὸς αὐτοὺς συναγωγὴ Ασιδαίων, ἰσχυροὶ δυνάμει ἀπὸ Ισραηλ, πᾶς ὁ ἑκουσιαζόμενος τῷ νόμῳ.
At that time a company of Hasideans, mighty warriors of Israel, united with them. They offered their lives willingly for the Law (CEB)
What struck me was the last part, “They offered their lives willingly for the law.” If you have never read Maccabees, it is a great place to go to get a look at the political landscape that was Palestine in the centuries leading up to the birth of the Messiah. I got to thinking, how does the zeal for the Law here in 1 Macc differ with the same zeal found in the NT, particularly in the Pharisees? This verse in 1 Macc does not seem to imply that the Jews in this time were trying to earn any favor with God. Rather, they were concerned with the purity of their Law, so much so that they would willing offer their lives for it (ὁ ἑκουσιαζόμενος τῷ νόμῳ).
A little further we read:
Now the days drew near for Mattathias to die, and he spoke to his sons: “Arrogance and contempt are present everywhere. It is a time of ruin and raging anger. 50 Now, my children, demonstrate zeal for the Law, and give your lives for our ancestors’ covenant. 51 “Remember the deeds of the ancestors, which they did in their day, and you will inherit great honor and everlasting remembrance.
52 Wasn’t Abraham found faithful when he was tested, and it was considered righteousness
53 Joseph kept the commandment in the time of his distress, and he became ruler of Egypt.
54 Our ancestor Phinehas received the covenant of everlasting priesthood because he was deeply zealous.
55 Joshua became a judge in Israel because he fulfilled the command.
56 Caleb received an inheritance in the land because he testified in the assembly.
57 David inherited the throne of the kingdom forever because he was merciful.
58 Elijah was taken up into heaven because he had great zeal for the Law.
59 Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael believed, and were rescued from the flame.
60 Daniel was delivered from the lions’ mouths because of his innocence.
61 “So you see that from generation to generation, no one who continues to trust God will lack strength. 62 Don’t fear the words of sinners, for their glory will turn into dung and worms. 63 Today they may be exalted, but tomorrow they can’t be found, because they will have returned to the dust and their plans will have vanished. 64 My children, show courage and grow strong in the Law, because this will bring you honor.
Again, there is nothing that overtly indicates a desire to earn God’s favor by doing the Law. Yes, there are sayings like “demonstrate zeal for the Law” (2.50); “Joseph kept the commandments…” (2.53); Joshua “fulfilled the commandment” (2.55); Elijah was taken up because of his “great zeal for the Law” (2.58). But these by themselves are not a clear indication of an attempt to earn God’s favor through obedience to the Law. In fact, 1 Macc 2.52 is very similar to what we have recored in Jam 2.20-23:
20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God (cf. Rom 4.3; Gen 15.6).
The situation in Palestine during the Maccabean revolt was one that called for an strict allegiance to the Law. At a time when Gentile rulers were trying to force the Jews of Palestine to assimilate to Gentile customs, a radical obedience to the Law was the one thing that separated obedient Jews from the rest of the people, which included both Gentiles as well as nominal Jews.